Thai activists turn to Clubhouse after street crackdown

After a youth movement calling for reform of Thailand’s monarchy erupted on the streets of Bangkok last year, many dissidents were detained without bail and faced criminal charges.

But inside Clubhouse, a live, invitation-only audio chat application, pro-democracy activism is on the rise as the popular political forum allows like-minded Thai netizens to connect with each other.

Members can host, moderate and listen to discussions on any topic and in any language. The “raise your hand” feature allows users to interact with moderators and other users in real time.

Launched a year ago, the app is dominated by entrepreneurs and techies. But in Thailand, the platform’s popularity didn’t start to rise until February of this year, when some prominent politicians joined the app.

Today Clubhouse’s chat rooms are filled with both soft and hard political discussions and don’t shy away from Thailand’s taboo topic: the monarchy.

“I don’t think Clubhouse’s founders originally designed the app to be used as a political forum,” says Arthittaya Boonyaratana, a freelance writer and podcast producer who joined Clubhouse in February. “But Thailand doesn’t have a platform for political discussion. People crave a space to exchange ideas freely and openly, and Clubhouse fills that void.”

Clubhouse also provides a convenient space for Atithya and her Palang Club to advance their democratic agenda. “The Thai Solidarity Club is a community of thousands of Clubhouse users.

Founded in March, the group has hosted discussions on political and national issues ranging from the government’s handling of the new vaccine crown to nepotism in the Thai civil service. Earlier this month, “Thai Solidarity Club organized an 18-hour-long concert on Clubhouse. The festival raised the equivalent of nearly $40,000 in donations to help cover the legal costs of getting many of the detained protesters out of jail.

One night of fame

Clubhouse became a sensation in Thailand after influential figures, including Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an academic who was a fierce critic of the monarchy in Japan, hosted discussions on the app.

Their chat room audience exceeded the limit set by Clubhouse of no more than 8,000 listeners present at the same time, sending the overflow to several online meeting rooms. But even without the attraction of big names, and because real-life public discussion is often limited, people often turn to the online world to host various political chat room events in the Clubhouse “hallways.

“The audience and content of political discussions on Clubhouse will continue to expand,” said Rukchanok Srinork, a 27-year-old member of the Thai Solidarity Club, which sells toys and gifts online. Srinork said. “People are eager to open a chat room to engage in debates about political and social issues.”

Rakchanok became famous by asking pointed and uncomfortable questions to prominent people on Clubhouse. Real-time interaction is one of the app’s unique features, which allowed her to ask Thailand’s public health minister about the delayed rollout of the new crown vaccine.

Clubhouse, she says, “breaks the privilege of the political elite in our society. It shows you whether we can hold cabinet members accountable and whether they are willing to answer public inquiries.

However, Rakshanuk said she was not convinced that other members of the government would be willing to host a live chat on Clubhouse, a situation that could expose them to straightforward questions and criticism.

Clubhouse, which launched in April 2020, had nearly 14 million global downloads in the first quarter of this year, according to market data firm Statista.

As of February, Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for the largest share of the app’s global downloads, followed by Asia.

The app was banned in China after users discussed sensitive topics like Beijing’s placement of Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

In the Middle East, it was blocked on certain mobile networks in Jordan, and in the United Arab Emirates, users described unexplained glitches.

Thai authorities warned users not to spread false information after Bhawin Chachavapongpan, an associate professor at Kyoto University, about the royal palace and King Maha Vajiralongkorn quickly drew thousands of listeners.

Moving to the Web

Surachanee Sriya, a lecturer in political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations has contributed to the Clubhouse boom.

Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand, mostly high school and university students, have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, changes to Thailand’s constitution and reform of the monarchy.

The movement peaked last year when it drew tens of thousands of people to the streets. Since then, it has struggled to maintain its momentum. Authorities have used high-pressure water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters .

Critics argue that the authorities’ most powerful weapon is Thailand’s draconian crime of bullying. The law was enacted to shield the monarchy from criticism. Those convicted of bullying, or lèse-majesté, which is a violation of Section 112, could face 15 years in prison.

Since the youth protests began in July 2020, at least 82 people, some as young as 16, have been summoned or charged under Section 112, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. The law group said key student leaders have been repeatedly denied bail while awaiting trial.

“Thai politics is at a volatile, sensitive time,” Surachani told the Voice of America. “It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to take to the streets …… hence the need to retreat online again.”

Prospects for development

Sombat Boonngamanong, a veteran pro-democracy activist in Bangkok, said that different protest groups in Thailand have been using social media for years to expand their roots and amplify their messages.

Sombat believes that Clubhouse still has untapped potential for political activism. He said the app’s instant interaction feature could help pro-democracy activists expand their reach more effectively and change the way they communicate their agenda or exchange information.

In an experiment conducted April 18, Sombat and about 100 members used Paing Takhon, a popular Burmese actor and model, as their avatar photo. The male model was arrested April 7 in an anti-democracy crackdown by the Burmese military.

Together, they joined an ongoing chat room on the situation in Burma in a stunning display of “flash mobs” combined with “photo bombs. The moderator described it as a show of solidarity.

After a human rights lawyer sent a distress letter from police custody, members of the Thai Solidarity Club immediately took action to express concern for the safety of the lawyer and other activists awaiting trial.

“Some members suggested we hand-deliver a letter (asking the Thai parliamentary committee to investigate) …… and then everyone got involved to make it happen online” and then in real life as well, Lakchanuk said. “It became real action outside of Clubhouse.”

Although activists believe they have used Clubhouse and social media successfully, Surachani, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said she remains skeptical of Clubhouse’s ability to drive a social movement.

“It’s too early to say that Clubhouse can drive a massive movement,” she said. “We haven’t seen that happen yet, but it’s more common for Clubhouse to be used to organize smaller, lower-risk political campaigns.”