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Is there no safety at universities?: Protecting Thai students’ rights and freedoms on campus

Read this article in Thai

This article is produced by Talaia, whose identity we have withheld for security purposes. The project is part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom initiative, which aims to increase awareness and engagement on digital rights issues among youth advocates in Asia Pacific.

Thalia is an individual captivated by the beauty of art, nature, and the human spirit. She holds a profound belief in the transformative power of the butterfly effect, seeing the potential for small actions to create significant and meaningful impacts in the world.

A university campus is like a home away from home for students. Instead of houses and dormitories, a campus is where bookish youngsters spend most of their time, and is also the final stage before entering the workforce. In late adolescence, many people perceive a campus as a place for preparing individuals to become fully adults. It is a place that helps make people mature, knowledgeable, and ready to work for their families and themselves. But in the 21st century, where younger generations have broader perspectives on social media, there are frequent news stories and posts on the merciless freshmen’s welcoming activities, teachers’ sexual harassment of students, and unjustifiable arrests within the campus, among others.

These occurrences have prompted people to reconsider the primary responsibility of universities in Thailand. If the university is intended to foster students’ knowledge and cultivate potential graduates, how can their feelings of security and rights be prioritized by the educational institutions? This article is written to raise awareness of unsafe situations within the campus area from the perspective of the students. It aims to review the responsibility and role of the university, an institution with the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees in various fields of study in a world advancing with technology and social media.

This article shares stories collected from university students who are afraid to speak out or do not have a safe space to share their stories. These stories illustrate the necessity to look at the role of Thailand universities in protecting their students from these human and digital rights violations. Identifiable details have been withheld or replaced due to security purposes.

Political surveillance of student activities

In 2021, a campus manager attempted to seize the students’ artworks relating to politics and critical of the Thai royal family. They were stopped only once the news reached opposition groups. On one hand, people argued that these are just artworks, and seizing them without prior notice is unjust. The students did nothing wrong; they had the freedom to express their political views. On the other hand, people believe this is inappropriate due to the perceived exploitation of Thai royalism. In the absence of a livestream or video footage of the incident, how could the students properly identify who took their artwork? How could they protect their rights and express their thoughts safely within a campus that claims to be politically neutral?

During the governance of the National Council for Peace and Order in the mid-2010s, several universities issued directives to their staff, instructing them to prevent students from commenting on politics or anything deemed harmful to national security, both online and offline. Some of the campuses even had military booths located within their premises.

Since then, students have since questioned whether political criticism truly should be a liberty for everyone. In fact, every year during the Chula-Thammasat Traditional Football Match, the students participating are constantly inspected and photographed by some soldiers or plainclothes police. Even though they are aware of this, the students can only remain silent. Meanwhile, the university has not taken any action on this matter at all.

Leakage of personal information

Another claim from this article’s contributors involves the violation of students’ privacy within the campus and the leakage of students’ personal information.

This incident was shared with the writer by a fellow student who wishes to remain anonymous. Their story: One of the instructors directly contacted him and informed him about the effect of the negative teacher’s evaluation. It is globally known that the assessment must not reveal the identity of the students completing it. If so, how can the instructor realize who left the comment on that assessment?

And another story: For over a decade, there has been news of the arrest of students from the Deep South who were researching about and exploring the three border provinces. The police have also allegedly conducted raids within the campus area after such incidents. The university defended these raids, saying the students had not sought permission to explore the area beforehand. However, it was also reported that the police conducted the raids without following the agreement made with the university.

It is not just in these more extreme circumstances that students’ rights to privacy are violated by university protocol.

Because campuses are deemed public spaces and can be accessible to anyone, implementing a vehicle registration or ID card exchange system serves as an effective measure to regulate the flow of people in and out of the area for safety purposes. However, this practice appears to violate students’ privacy during campus activities.

One example is when lucky students who wear proper helmets when riding motorbikes are commended for their adherence to safety protocols. Photographs from these awardings, taken by high-resolution CCTV cameras, are shared on social media. These images include shots of the riders’ backs with their passengers, as well as their license plates. While this activity may seem enjoyable and brand new, the details captured in these pictures—ranging from students’ appearances, clothing, shoes, and postures, to motorcycle colors and license plates — can be exploited or manipulated by criminals for various purposes. It is also evident that the university can capture students’ pictures, regardless of their location within the campus area.

Additionally, there is a website displaying real-time locations along with license plate information, as well as the entrance and exit gates used by these students. The purpose behind the collection of this information, and even whether students can choose to opt out of this data collection, remain unknown.

Yet another story: In a university that has this exact system, the license plate of one student activist is always displayed as red on the screen when passing through the campus gates. In contrast, a green license plate indicates that the vehicle is registered with the university, while the color black signifies those who have not registered. This student activist, who shared their story with the writer, questions why their license plate has consistently shown up as red for years without anyone else experiencing the same situation. As of today, there is still no response or clarification.

“When I rode through the gates, it always showed red. I’ve been curious about it for years. When I asked my friends, none of them had the same experience. The security guard suggested it might be because of registration expiration, but I’ve never registered.”

Universities’ role in protecting their students

The stories outlined here represent only a fraction of the reality spread through social media and the news, and have become part of the students’ narratives. What about the other incidents that remain unseen or unknown? The potential dangers to personal information safety within the campus area are uncertain.

Despite this, people are still required to provide some information to the university, trusting that it will be used to protect their students, much like the trust placed in their government, hospitals, banks, or other institutions. There are rumours about the sale of personal information to hackers and the leakage of data from the government application Mor Prom, suggesting that criminals can easily access citizens’ private information. If the systems of both political and educational institutes cannot be inspected, should people be proactive, seek resolutions, and take measures to protect themselves? As a result of being in a minor position or a youth university student with no income but responsibilities, the ability to negotiate and self-protect is less than usual.

The university should be a trustworthy place, gathering academic and potential knowledge from various fields of study, serving as a safe environment for students and staff, and complying with the mission reference to the Thai Encyclopedia, which includes graduate production, research and development, being a source of knowledge and academic services, and the preservation of art and culture.

From now on, we should reevaluate the concept of the university and our personal information’s safety. In an era where technology constantly advances, our personal information may be collected or used without our acknowledgement, and the ways of the criminal’s disguise are ever-changing. It is crucial to keep an eye on university transparency to ensure that schools remain a secure and trustworthy space.

As one contributing student puts it:

“Even as individuals of minor standing, we should have the right to grant or deny permission and decide whether to provide information, as well as the authority to determine how that information is used. Even in the absence of democracy in society, transparency should be prioritized; that is, the ability to criticize when receiving suspicious information.”

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