How Clubhouse is helping Thailand’s pro-democracy movement

The spontaneous audio chat app Clubhouse is providing a safe space for pro-democracy advocates to question Thailand’s powerful monarchy.

In a nation where standing against the monarchy can lead to 15 years behind bars, Thai citizens eager to discuss politically taboo subjects are now flocking to emerging chatroom app Clubhouse.

Originally billed as a bougie social media platform where everyday people could join in conversations with celebrity and influencer A-listers, Clubhouse has instead become an overnight hit with Thai activists. Protesters are using the platform to freely discuss Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s totalitarian regime, as well as co-ordinate future demonstrations.

In almost identical fashion to China, where Clubhouse also became a battleground between pro-democracy forces and oppressive government rulings, authorities in Thailand have threatened to block access to the app following a massive surge in popularity this month – particularly among a growing student cohort calling itself The Ratsadon.

Predictably, such actions have served only to stoke more interest in the app, and anti-senate demonstrations have trended on Twitter throughout the week.

Why are students protesting?

Thailand’s 2019 election was publicised as an end to five years of strict military rule. For the county’s long disillusioned youth and first-time voters it represented a chance at scaling back the influence of the country’s military and putting some power back in the hands of the people.

Why two years on then are we bearing witness to some of the largest protest rallies the capital of Bangkok has ever seen?

Since 2014, when the military took the head of government by force, the party has created a 250-member senate comprised of military figureheads able to block legislation passed by the lower house. Having voting rights when it comes to instating Prime Ministers, along with the 500-seat lower house, a recent constitution obliges any future governments to carry out a 20-year development plan which strongly abides by military rule.

Very much adding insult to injury, the party drafted together arguably its most brazen constitution to date, all but ensuring its instatement beyond 2019. Challenged by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP) it looked all but certain that a change of guard was finally on the way in 2019.

However, a court contentiously ruled that a loan received by the FFP from Thanathorn was in fact a donation – rendering the act illegal under the current regime, and forcing the party to disband.

With all competition eliminated, Prayuth’s party has now set about further tightening its ‘lese-majeste decree,’ which outlaws any anti-royal sentiments or demonstrations and doles out prison sentences of up to 15 years. Those caught spreading propaganda online can face charges up to five years, and oftentimes those arrested are completely denied bail.


How Clubhouse is proving useful?

Considering that several activists and UN rights experts are currently facing lawsuits for standing up to Thailand’s monarchy, you can understand why young protesters are seeking out ephemeral platforms – meaning those that erase conversations once they’re over – to vent their disdain.

A sort of cautious optimism is brewing on the platform, with Thai students setting up and joining private chatrooms to discuss government reform, and in some channels even organising future pro-democracy demonstrations. Intentionally or not, Clubhouse has provided an avenue for them to do so with minimal risk.

That may not continue indefinitely though. Clubhouse has come to the attention of policy makers in Thailand this week, and given that the app’s value has surged from $100 million to $1 billion in under a year, there will definitely be internal concern about how this could develop.

The nation’s digital economy and society minister Putthipong Punnakan came out last week and warned against potential violations of the law for what the government deems to be ‘disinformation.’

Despite this posturing it would come as something of a shock if Clubhouse users were to start actually being arrested and convicted. Clubhouse has pledged on more than one occasion to keep user data completely private, and with the global attention Thailand is now receiving, a wider political fallout for Prayuth would run the risk of further economic turmoil.

Heavily reliant on tourism and trade, Thailand’s gross domestic product withered by more than six percent in 2020. Slated to improve as the planet navigates the home stretch of the pandemic, the government will surely think twice about laying down the gauntlet on free speech – a highly heated topic across the West at the moment.

Whether or not Clubhouse will become the latest app to be crushed under the weight of another oppressive regime remains to be seen.

One thing is crystal clear though, the people of Thailand are rising up and the protests are only going to grow in scale. The fact you’re even reading this is a testament to that.

@thredmag

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