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Clubhouse app lets Thai protesters speak out

February 24, 2021

Criticizing the monarchy is a serious crime in Thailand. But a popular chatroom app is giving reform-minded Thais a forum to discuss politically sensitive topics.

Protesters makes three finger salutes at a recent demonstration in Bangkok
Thailand pro-democracy supporters are often wary of openly criticizing the monarchyImage: Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

Clubhouse is an invite-only audio app that is surging in popularity in Thailand as a youthful protest movement continues to demand reforms of the government and monarchy.

Launched in April 2020, Clubhouse recently gained traction among Thai protest circles after Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled academic and prominent long-time critic of the Thai monarchy, joined the platform on February 12.

Pavin told DW that the police crackdown on political protests in Thailand has contributed to Clubhouse's sudden popularity.

"There are no open discussions … so when a new venue is introduced, people jump in to discuss politics," Pavin said.

Pavin has already added nearly 300,000 followers in less than two weeks, and he said he noticed that people in many of the chat rooms on the voice-based app discuss the royal family.

Clubhouse app on a smartphone
The app allows anonymous conversation about taboo topicsImage: dpa/picture alliance

"It's as if the app were created for conversations about the monarchy," Pavin joked.

Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's self-exiled former prime minister, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, has also joined Clubhouse under the name "Tony Woodsome."

His arrival on the platform made quite a splash, with at least 50,000 people joining a discussion on Monday about Thai politics, although Thaksin dodged some of the thornier questions about about the pro-democracy movement and its demand for royal reforms.

Openly criticizing the Thai monarchy can entail a long prison sentence under Thailand's lese majeste law. However, the once off-limits monarchy has been subject to more widespread criticism since the emergence last year of a youth-led pro-democracy protest movement.

They demand the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a rewrite of the military-drafted constitution and reform of Thailand's all-powerful monarchy.

Clubhouse connects protest movement

"When you go to the protests, you can only talk to those who are nearby and listen to the leaders, whose speeches are sometimes disappointing," Pla, a Clubhouse user who started using the app around the same time as Pavin, told DW.

The app is like "a smaller-scale protest, but if we disagree with something, we can just raise our hand. It is interactive and helps spread ideas at a much faster pace," she added.

Developed by California-based software company Alpha Exploration Co, Clubhouse is an interactive audio-chatting app that allows users to enter live chat rooms.

Users listen in or join a conversation by raising their virtual hands to join the stage. The chatrooms disappear when the discussions end.

The platform has become a way for pro-democracy movement figures to connect with supporters, and the enthusiasm is palpable.

Participants in Pavin's first chat numbered 300 on the day he joined. Last weekend, 35,000 people attended his chat.

Even after Clubhouse has allowed the chatrooms to exceed the 5,000-person limit in recent days, several other secondary rooms were required to meet listener demand.

Although other chatrooms criticizing the government or the royal institution do not provoke the same level of excitement, they are still regularly filled, or surpass the maximum capacity.

Thai authorities threaten users

Like in China, where Clubhouse access is now blocked after it erupted as a popular platform for open discussion, the Thai government has warned users they face legal consequences for violating the Computer Crime Act if they abuse the app.

"Authorities are ready to proceed with legal action [against those breaking the law], the same as with other social media platforms," Thai Digital Economy Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta said in a statement last Thursday.

Cybercrime legislation has been rigorously enforced to prosecute critics of the government and monarchy.

"The Thai government still has a very outdated mindset when it comes to information. They think they can still control and produce one set of information," Pavin said.

"When there is a different version, they don't know how to deal with it and end up resorting to old methods by using laws to restrict it," he added.

Clubhouse bridges the political divide

Clubhouse user Pla has yet to spot a chat room on the app used by government supporters. However, the 29-year-old said she has already heard a discussion between those who are anti-government but think the monarchy should be left untouched, and those who want royal reform.

She believes the government is trying to ban this app because they don't want both sides of the political spectrum to talk to each other directly.

Whatever the government's intentions, Clubhouse's growing popularity has the potential to alter the sphere of public discussion in Thailand.

Pavin said the app provides an opportunity for discussion in a tense political climate with many opposing views.

Although he doesn't believe the app will turn Thai royalists over to the pro-democracy camp, he said his "dream is to have a channel for dialogue between groups of people with different opinions."

Emmy Sasipornkarn Srimingkwanchai
Emmy Sasipornkarn Multimedia journalist covering Thailand and Southeast Asia