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Thai Activists Gravitate to Clubhouse After Crackdown

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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.

Thai Unity Club
Thai Unity Club raised more than 1.12 million baht or about $40,000 at a virtual concert on Clubhouse. (Courtesy Thai Unity Club)

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.

Overnight sensation

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.

Rukchanok Srinork
Clubhouse user from Thailand, Rukchanok Srinork, gave an interview from her home in Bangkok. (Warangkana Chomchuen/VOA)

"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.

FILE PHOTO: Illustration picture of social audio app Clubhouse
The icon for the social media app Clubhouse is seen on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Feb. 9, 2021.

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.

Moving online

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.”

Promises, pitfalls

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.

Thai Unity Club
Rakchanok Srinok and members of Thai Unity Club, a group formed on Clubhouse, submitted a letter to bring attention to the condition of jailed political activists in March 2021. (Courtesy Thai Unity Club)

“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.

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Myanmar’s Deposed Leader Aung San Suu Kyi Makes New Court Appearance

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Myanmar’s deposed de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi made another court appearance Monday as the country’s regional neighbors increase pressure on the military junta to bring an end to the deadly chaos.

Lawyers for the 75-year-old Suu Kyi also appeared via video conference in a courtroom in the capital Naypyitaw for a procedural hearing.

Suu Kyi has been detained since the February 1 coup and is facing six criminal charges, the most serious of them a charge of breaking the country’s colonial-era secrets law that could put her in prison for 14 years if convicted.

Her lawyers say on Monday she again demanded a face-to-face meeting with her legal team, which has not occurred during her detention.

Two other leaders from the overthrown civilian government, President U Win Myint and Dr. Myo Aung, Naypitaw Council Chairman, also appeared before the court via video conference. The next hearing for all three will be held on May 10.

The military cited widespread fraud in last November’s general election — which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide — as its reason for overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government.

The coup has sparked daily mass demonstrations across Myanmar demanding the return of Suu Kyi and her elected government to power.

The junta has responded with an increasingly violent and deadly crackdown against the protesters. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nongovernmental monitoring organization, estimates that more than 700 people have been killed since the coup.

Leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc, of which Myanmar is a member, held an emergency summit Saturday in Jakarta with Senior General Min Aung Hliang, the junta’s leader. The group issued a rare statement demanding the junta end the violence, begin a dialogue with all relevant parties and allow entry of a special ASEAN envoy.

But it stopped short of a demand for the immediate release of all political prisoners.

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Editorial: Myanmar People’s Disdain for ASEAN Borne Out by Pathetic ‘Consensus’

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In Jakarta, the bloc didn’t simply fail to condemn the junta and back the people—it bought the generals more time to move ahead with their corrupt and repressive agenda.Irrawaddy

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Myanmar Shadow Government Welcomes ASEAN Call to End Violence

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Myanmar’s shadow government of ousted lawmakers has welcomed a call by Southeast Asian leaders for an end to “military violence” after their crisis talks in Jakarta with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing.

The general attended a high-level summit Saturday with leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to discuss Myanmar’s mounting crisis.

Since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar has been in an uproar with near-daily protests and a nationwide civil disobedience movement.

Security forces have deployed live ammunition to quell the uprising, killing more than 740 people in brutal crackdowns, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

The ASEAN meeting produced a consensus that there would be “an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar,” the bloc said Saturday.

It added that ASEAN will also have a special envoy to “facilitate mediation” between all parties, and this representative will be able to travel to Myanmar.

But while they “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners,” a commitment to free them was not included in the consensus statement.

A spokesperson from the shadow government — known as the National Unity Government (NUG) — on Saturday said ASEAN’s statement was “encouraging news.”

“We look forward to firm action by ASEAN to follow up its decisions and restore our democracy and freedom for our people and for the region,” said Dr Sasa, the NUG’s minister of international cooperation, who is currently in hiding with the rest of his fellow lawmakers.

The lawmakers — most of whom were part of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party — are wanted for high treason by the junta.

Overnight, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc will continue to call for the release of political prisoners.

‘Business as usual’

As Myanmar nears three months under the military regime, escalating violence by its security forces — especially in urban centers — has pushed protesters and prominent activists into hiding.

The junta has also throttled communications across the country, imposing a nightly internet shutdown for 70 consecutive days and restricting mobile data to a mere trickle.

By Saturday, the number of detainees climbed to 3,389, according to AAPP.

Independent news outlet The Irrawaddy confirmed Sunday that a former editor, Thu Thu Tha, was arrested in Thanlyin, a port city across the river from commercial hub Yangon.

“In spite of Min Aung Hlaing’s appearance in the ASEAN summit, it’s business as usual,” Irrawaddy’s founder Aung Zaw told AFP, adding that most of his staff are currently in hiding.

On Saturday, as the junta chief attended the meeting with ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers in Jakarta, soldiers and police fired on protesters near Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw.

One 50-year-old protester was held by the police and shot dead by a soldier; an eyewitness told AFP.

Despite the threat of violence, protesters across Myanmar continued to take to the streets Sunday — from the northern jade mining city of Hpakant to eastern Karenni state.

In central Myingyan — where brutal crackdowns have forced residents to hide in nearby villages — protesters smeared red paint on some of the city’s buildings to protest the bloodshed.

“Give power back to the people,” read graffiti on the city’s sidewalks.

‘Will the killing stop?’

State-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar on Sunday reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit to Jakarta and said he discussed the country’s “political changes.”

But it made no mention of ASEAN’s consensus for a halt to violence.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said it remains to be seen how effective the bloc’s engagement will be.

“The result of the ASEAN Summit will be found in Myanmar, not [in] a document,” Andrews tweeted Sunday.

“Will the killing stop? Will the terrorizing of neighborhoods end? Will the thousands abducted be released?”

The junta has justified its power seizure as a means to protect democracy, alleging electoral fraud in November elections which Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.

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