After a youth movement to reform Thailand’s monarchy erupted onto Bangkok’s streets last year, many dissidents have been detained without bail, while facing criminal charges in what appears to be a quieted city.
But inside Clubhouse, a live, invitation-only audio chat app, the activism continues as the popular political forum allows like-minded Thai netizens to bond.
Members can host, moderate, and listen to discussions on any topic and in any language. The “raise hand” feature allows users to have real-time interaction with moderators and each other.
Launched a year ago, the app was dominated by entrepreneurs and technology types. But in Thailand, the platform's popularity didn't take off until February, when prominent political figures joined the app.
Today Clubhouse chat rooms are abuzz with soft- and hard-core political discussions that don’t shy away from Thailand’s taboo topic: the monarchy.
“I don’t think Clubhouse’s founders designed the app primarily to be used as a political forum,” said Arthittaya Boonyaratana, a freelance writer and podcast producer who joined Clubhouse in February. “But Thailand doesn’t have a platform for political discourse. People are starved of a space to freely and openly exchange ideas, and Clubhouse fills that void.”
Clubhouse also gives Arthittaya and her Palang Club, or “Thai Unity Club,” a community with thousands of Clubhouse users, a convenient space to advance their pro-democracy agenda.
Founded in March, the group has hosted discussions on political and national affairs, from the government’s handling of COVID-19 vaccines to nepotism in Thailand’s civil service sector. Earlier this month, Thai Unity Club organized an 18-hour-long concert on Clubhouse. The music fest raised nearly $40,000, to cover legal fees to help get many detained protesters out of jail.
Clubhouse became a sensation in Thailand after influential figures, including Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Japan-based academic and a fierce critic of the monarchy, hosted discussions on the app.
Their chat room audiences blew past the Clubhouse limit of 8,000 concurrent listeners, sending the overflow into several online rooms. But even without the draw of big names, it’s still common to see the audience of political chat rooms being hosted in the Clubhouse “hallway” as public discourse in real life is often limited.
"Political discussions on Clubhouse will continue to grow in terms of audience and content,” said Rukchanok Srinork, a 27-year-old Thai Unity Club member who sells toys and gifts online. “People are eager to open a chat room to engage in debates about political and social issues.”
Rukchanok made her mark by asking tough, uncomfortable questions of high-profile figures on Clubhouse. Real-time interaction, one of the app’s unique features, made it possible for her to ask Thailand’s public health minister about the delayed rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
Clubhouse, she said, “disrupts the privilege of political elites in our society. It shows you whether we can hold the Cabinet members accountable and whether they are willing to answer the public’s inquiries.”
However, Rukchanok said she doubted that other members of the government will want to host a live chat on Clubhouse, a situation that has the potential to expose them to direct questions and criticism.
Launched in April 2020, Clubhouse had nearly 14 million downloads globally in the first quarter this year, according to market data company Statista.
As of February, Europe, the Middle East and Africa held the largest share of global downloads of the app, followed by Asia.
The app was banned in China, after users discussed sensitive topics such as Beijing's placement of Uyghurs in concentration camps in Xinjiang, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
In the Middle East, it is blocked on certain mobile networks in Jordan, while in the United Arab Emirates, users have described unexplainable glitches.
In Thailand, authorities have warned users not to distribute disinformation after Kyoto University’s associate professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun’s talk of the palace and King Maha Vajiralongkorn quickly drew thousands of listeners.
Surachanee Sriyai, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations has contributed to Clubhouse’s boom.
Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters, mostly school and university students, have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the rewriting of the country’s constitution, and reform of the monarchy.
The movement drew tens of thousands to the streets at its peak last year. Since then, it has struggled to maintain its momentum. Authorities met protesters with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.
Critics contend the authorities’ most powerful weapon is Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law, written to shield the monarchy from criticism. Those found guilty of violating the law, known as Article 112, could face up to 15 years in prison.
At least 82 people — some just 16 years old — have been summoned or charged under Article 112 since the youth protests began in July 2020, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. Key student leaders have been repeatedly denied bail as they await trial, according to the legal group.
“Thai politics is at a precarious, sensitive juncture,” Surachanee told VOA. “Going out in the streets has become increasingly riskier ... making it necessary to retreat online again.”
For years, different protest groups in Thailand have used social media to expand their bases and amplify their messages, according to Sombat Boonngamanong, a veteran pro-democracy activist, who is based in Bangkok.
In 2013-14, critics of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra used a “check-in” feature and shared pictures on Facebook when they joined street demonstrations to call for her resignation.
Last year, the youth movement, which has adopted a flat rather than hierarchical leadership structure, migrated to Facebook, Twitter and Telegram to organize street rallies and flash mobs.
“Pro-democracy activists have found Clubhouse to be effective and a significant number of them have used it as a base," said Sombat, 53, who was drawn to Clubhouse after Tesla CEO Elon Musk appeared on the app on Feb. 1.
Sombat believes that Clubhouse has untapped potential for political activism. The app’s instantaneous interactive feature could help pro-democracy activists expand their reach more effectively and change the way they spread their agenda or exchange information, he said.
In an experiment on April 18, Sombat and some 100 members used the picture of Myanmar’s popular actor/model Paing Takhon — who was arrested April 7 by the military during an anti-democracy crackdown — as their profile pictures.
Together, they joined an ongoing chat room about Myanmar’s situation, pulling off a stunt that resembled a flash mob crossed with a photobomb, which the host described as a show of solidarity.
After a human rights lawyer sent a distress letter from police detention, Thai Unity Club members sprang into action to express concern about the safety of the lawyer and other activists as they awaited trials.
“Some members proposed that we hand deliver a letter [to ask a Thai parliamentary committee to investigate] ... then everyone pitched in to make it happen” online and then in real life, said Rukchanok. “It became real activism outside of Clubhouse.”
Despite what the activists see as successes using Clubhouse and social media, Surachanee, the political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said she remains skeptical about the ability of Clubhouse to drive a social movement.
“It’s too early to say that Clubhouse can fuel a large-scale movement,” she said. “We have yet to see it, but it’s more common to see Clubhouse being used to organize smaller, lower-risk political activities.”
Clubhouse is not immune to the drawbacks that color much of social media — accessibility, the echo-chamber effect and slacktivism, according to Surachanee, who studies digital politics and political communication.
For now, Clubhouse is only accessible on iOS, the mobile operating system for iPhone and iPad. That means Android users in Thailand, who account for about 70% of the population, remain excluded.
Some Clubhouse users may feel less enthusiastic to join protests or other on-the-ground activism when they can click for information and discussions online, Surachanee said.
Arthittaya, a Clubhouse early adopter, said she was aware of the pitfalls. The 32-year-old freelancer is in demand to moderate discussions on the app but makes sure she shows up on the street.
“Clubhouse is a great tool to brainstorm, strategize and build consensus, but it’s certainly still very important to join protests” she said. “We need an on-the-ground show of force to empower the people and to gain more political leverage.”
This story originated in VOA's Thai Service.