The Clubhouse Challenge To Digital Authoritarianism in Thailand

The Clubhouse Challenge To Digital Authoritarianism in Thailand
Photo Credit:AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

Clubhouse seems to pose a threat to the Thai government, allowing protesters to discuss sensitive topics, including the monarchy. Authorities are threatening to block access to it after a surge in popularity.

By Wichuta Teeratanabodee

Disputes between the Thai authorities and anti-authoritarian movements are moving from the streets to the online world. Thai protestors are using creative memes and hashtags to spread their agenda. In the past few weeks, a new app Clubhouse has quickly become another venue through which protestors are calling for democracy. This development is yet another challenge to the Thai government’s digital authoritarianism, a developing trend since the 2014 coup.

Launched in 2020, Clubhouse is an audio-based social media platform which allows users to create groups and share stories. Each member can schedule and host a virtual room, and then decide who can speak.

Clubhouse was initially used among people in the fields of technology, finance, and entrepreneurship. It quickly gained popularity within politics as many prominent political figures started using the app, including founders of the progressive Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, as well as Kla Party leader Korn Chatikavanij. The app offers the opportunity for users to directly interact with experts or public figures in a more informal setting. In the words of one Thai user, “It’s like they’re your friends, and you’re calling with them on the phone.”

Clubhouse helps advance the pro-democracy agenda by giving protestors a convenient space for advocacy. The real-time question-and-answer function allows audiences to enjoy interactive “gossip-style discussions.” One of the most attention-catching rooms that multiplied the number of Thai users overnight was hosted by Pavin Chachavalpongpun — a Thai scholar and pro-democracy activist based in Japan. According to his Twitter account, Pavin has hosted discussion rooms on “Thai Politics” and “The Kingdom of Fear,” involving dialogues on Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, the Thai government and the lèse-majesté law. These are topics deemed taboo in Thai society. Within only a week, Pavin’s Clubhouse account has amassed over 100,000 followers.

Criticism of the monarchy has long been a sensitive topic in Thailand. Due to the lèse-majesté law, Thai people are prohibited from criticizing or defaming the King or other members of the royal family. Abolishing the law is a key aim for the 2020–2021 pro-democracy movements, who hope to promote free expression in Thailand.

When asked about his online advocacy and the risk of being charged with Article 112, Pavin replied that “it is risky, but it must be encouraged, as the more we speak about it, the more such discussions become the norm.” The Thai demonstrators also aim to normalize discussion over the role and legitimacy of the Thai monarchy. Throughout the 2020–2021 protests, people have become more courageous in discussing the topic and calling for reform — a phenomenon that Thailand has not witnessed since the establishment of the law in 1957.

This is alarming for the Thai monarchy as it challenges its legitimacy. At least 50 people — all of whom attended political rallies in Thailand — have been accused of breaking the law since November last year.

Clubhouse seems to pose a grave concern to the authoritarian regime as it allows people to freely discuss any topic over a call. Messages are sent in a much more straightforward fashion than traditional social media posts. Last month, China banned the app after Chinese users used it to discuss topics often censored in China, including the Xinjiang detention camps.

Besides China, several Southeast Asian countries have stepped up their digital authoritarianism in the past few years. Thailand is no exception. Soon after Pavin’s discussion on Thai politics, the Thai Digital Ministry warned Thai citizens that if they use the app “in any way that would break the law, authorities would have no choice but to prosecute them with cyber crime legislation, which can result in five-year jail terms.”

Nevertheless, the announcement seems to have had a negligible effect on people’s usage of the app. While Clubhouse is still being developed and is only available for Apple iPhone users, the number of users has continuously increased. The company also recently hired an Android software developer, signaling its intention to expand to the Android platform.

Although access to Clubhouse will remain limited to smartphone owners, it allows protestors to spread their agenda beyond the streets and reach out more effectively without having to rely on the partially state-controlled mainstream media. Pavin, for instance, has already planned to host more lectures on Thai politics to expand his audience.

If the app is seen as posing a direct threat to the regime’s legitimacy, it is likely that the Thai government will crack down — like they have on other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. But the fact that protestors have adopted Clubhouse as their new protest hub already shows that government action may not discourage them. Instead it sparks anger and a desire to make their voices heard. The ball might be in the Thai government’s court, but its options aren’t good.

Wichuta Teeratanabodee is a research assistant and graduate student at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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