By Patpicha Tanakasempipat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's prestigious Chulalongkorn University has removed the head of its student council, a vocal critic of military rule, after he was accused of disrupting a royalist initiation ceremony.
But Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 20, and the student council said they refused to accept the university order against him and four other members, and would appeal against the decision.
First-year students are required to prostrate themselves before a statue of late Thai King Rama V, but older students are meant to do nothing except observe from the audience.
Netiwit and his colleagues, however, strode out in front of the students and bowed to the statue during the ceremony, and university authorities took that gesture as a show of defiant disrespect for the tradition.
This "reflects disrespect towards rights and liberties of other people whose views differ from their own," Pomthong Malakul Na Ayudhaya, a deputy dean at Chulalongkorn University, said in a statement on Thursday.
Pomthong said Netiwit was removed for "student disciplinary misconduct".
Respect for the monarchy is a fundamental tenet of Thai society. In recent years, Thailand has been riven by rivalry between the old, royalist-military establishment and populist forces that have arisen in conjunction with economic growth.
Netiwit was elected in May to lead the student council at the university. He rose to prominence as an anti-establishment figure after refusing to prostrate himself before the statue as a first-year student last year.
"I only wanted to show there are different ways to pay respect to the King Rama V," Netiwit told Reuters.
"Everyone should be able to think for themselves. You shouldn't force or coerce anyone into doing anything."
The tradition of prostration before kings was abolished in 1873 by King Rama V, the university's namesake. But the practice was revived in recent decades and the university began its own tradition in 1997.
The university did not comment when contacted by Reuters.
Netiwit has emerged as a rare critic of the military junta, which has silenced most dissent since seizing power in 2014. He has drawn comparisons with Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong.
The dismissals from the student council were less about misconduct than undermining what Netiwit represents, said Carina Chotirawe, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Arts who disagreed with the decision.
"To some their status as heroes is reinforced even more," Carina said.
(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)