The recent court rulings against members of the Teepsuwan family raise important questions about the future status of Rugby School in Thailand.
On February 24, the Criminal Court in Bangkok sentenced Mr Nataphol Teepsuwan to seven years and four months in prison for his role in the sometimes violent street protests that rocked the Thai capital back in 2013 and 2014, eventually leading to the military taking power from the elected government. His wife Mrs Taya Teepsuwan was handed a 1 year and 8 months suspended sentence, and she was also banned from politics for five years.
A total of 26 people were sentenced for their roles in the protests, on charges ranging from incitement to rebellion in the kingdom, work stoppages by workers, illegal assembly of more than 10 people to cause unrest, intrusion into state property, and disruption of an election.
Mr Teepsuwan spent two nights in jail before being released pending an appeal. Mrs Teepsuwan is also appealing the five year political ban part of her sentence.
Teepsuwan family ties to Rugby School in Chonburi
Rugby School in Chonburi is owned by members of the Teepsuwan family, through their company Wisdom Enterprise.
The school operates under licence from Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, which was founded in 1567 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and is widely regarded as one of the world’s most famous and successful co-educational boarding schools.
The license grants Rugby School in Thailand the right to use the Rugby School name, trademarks and intellectual property.
Questions are however now being raised about how the management at Rugby School in Britain will handle the fallout from the court verdicts in Thailand.
TIS Monitor has emailed Rugby School UK and asked them a number of questions. In an initial response, Amanda Hunter, Head of Marketing & Communications wrote that “we will get back to you shortly,” but since then TIS Monitor has recieved no further replies, despite a follow-up email.
Dr Anders Engvall is chief analyst at TIS Monitor.
“There is no doubt that the verdicts must be a huge embarrassment for Rugby School UK, and that it could potentially stain the school’s good reputation, yet there has been no comment on how they are planning to deal with it,” he says.
One major question is whether the higher court will uphold or overturn the verdicts given to Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan.
If the court upholds the verdicts then Rugby School UK will need to somehow deal with the fact that members of the family it has chosen to partner with in Thailand have been found guilty of crimes.
Paying for a strong brand
“As I see it, there are three options for Rugby School in Britain. One is to accept it and do nothing, but this requires being prepared to pay a huge price in terms of credibility. Another is to somehow buy the Teepsuwan family out of the school and find a new local partner. A third option would be to save what can be saved, and withdraw the license from the family, leaving the school to continue operating under a new name,” Dr Anders Engvall says.
The third option would have huge implications for families with children already enrolled in the school in Thailand , as well as for those planning to enroll soon.
Rugby School opened in Thailand in 2017, and has quickly grown to be one of the largest international schools on the Eastern Seaboard. Its prominent name, being associated with Rugby School UK, may have been a major reason for many families in choosing the school.
On average, tuition fees reach more than 670,000 baht per year, and initial fees are more than 250,000 baht. To put a child through primary and secondary education totals more than 8 million baht, making it the most expensive of all the schools tracked by TIS Monitor in its area.
“If the Rugby School name is withdrawn, it could end up being just like any other International school, and it would be hard to justify those fees without the prominent Rugby name. The school will also have a difficult time explaining the loss of name to families who were obviously expecting their children to graduate from a Rugby-school, not something else.” Dr Anders Engvall says.
Is Rugby School downplaying its links to the Teepsuwan’s?
Rugby School UK and members of the Teepsuwan family were previously full of praise for each other.
Mrs Teepsuwan has been the face of Rugby School in numerous articles published in Thailand over the past years. In an article published in the magazine The Big Chilli in 2017, she explained that: “The reason we chose Rugby School UK as our partner school was because they offer an impressive culture of excellence.”
Rugby School UK, for its part, writes on its website: “We will be working closely with the Teepsuwan family to ensure high standards are introduced and maintained across all activities at the new school, and there will be an inspection regime to ensure that our ethos and reputation for excellence in the UK are mirrored in Thailand.”
Given the verdicts and ongoing legal challenges the family members are now facing, the question arises whether this amicable relationship still exists – and if Rugby School UK still wants to be associated with them.
Rugby School in Thailand has already started taking actions to downplay the roles of Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan.
According to the internet archive Wayback Machine, a service that tracks changes made to websites, between January 20 and February 25, the day after the court verdicts were handed out, Rugby School in Thailand made several changes to its website.
On the Welcome page, the headline “Welcome from the Teepsuwans” has been changed to simply “Welcome”, and a photo showing Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan among others was swapped to a photo showing only the school campus.
The closing phrase “On behalf of the Teepsuwan family, welcome to Rugby School Thailand – Taya Teepsuwan”, has been fully removed.
As late as September 21, 2020, Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan both were in a photo showing the school’s Board of Governors. That photo has since been changed.
However, photos of Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan posted on Facebook indicate that they have been back to the school campus as late as March 19.
TIS Monitor has contacted Rugby School Thailand for a comment, but the request has been ignored.
Mixing schools and politics
Mr and Mrs Teepsuwan are well known political figures in Thailand, with both of them having held high political posts. Prior to the verdict, Mr Teepsuwan was Thailand’s minister of education, and Mrs Teepsuwan is a former Bangkok deputy governor.
Thailand’s political landscape can be described as highly volatile. Political alliances form and break easily and allegiances can change quickly. There are also various competing power bases jockeying for influence.
Dr Anders Engvall says that he was very surprised that Rugby School UK chose to enter into a partnership with a politically active family such as the Teepsuwans.
“If you have been running a school for more than 450 years, there is an enormous responsibility in how you act. You owe it not just to your predecessors but also to your successors to act with caution, so that you can carry on the school’s deeply rooted traditions and values. Embarking on a business partnership with political figures in a country like Thailand comes at a very high risk. Rugby School UK is about to learn that. Unfortunately, it could be the families who have enrolled their children at the school here in Thailand who will have to pay the highest price in the end,” he says, before going on to conclude:
“There is no doubt that Rugby School in Thailand is a great school, but they need to explain to their customers what the future of the school holds, and if it will continue to be worth enrolling your children there”.
Mrs Teepsuwan writes on her Facebook that she has no regrets about what she did during the protests, and seems somewhat indifferent to the whole situation: “Whatever will be, will be.”