#ClubhouseToxic: Thailand’s rural Isaan majority fight back against Bangkok elite stereotypes
- Despite being the birthplace of multiple Thai celebrities, agricultural Isaan has long been derided as backward by the country’s Bangkok-focused elite
- Recent leaked recordings of Clubhouse users insulting the region sparked a backlash – and spotlight Isaan’s importance in Thailand’s next elections
Despite being the birthplace of many top sports stars, actors, rappers and other Thai celebrities, the historically underdeveloped rice-producing region of 20 provinces has for decades been derided as backward and its people stereotyped as ill-educated and uncouth.
With looming local polls that could pave the way for a national vote as early as next year, authorities have been quick to vow action against the Clubhouse users involved. Yet not before leaked recordings of the remarks caused a social media uproar, with the Twitter hashtag #ClubhouseToxic being shared nearly 2.5 million times.
Prominent figures from the region hit back at the sweeping generalisations, with singer Kwannapa Ruangsri asking the Clubhouse users “why do you despise Isaan people so much?” and pro-democracy protest leader and teacher Attapon Buapat blaming colonialism for Thai society being “stuck in an elite mentality”.
For Pech Wongthamth, a 58-year-old cricket farmer in Khon Kaen – one of Isaan’s four major population centres – the attacks are nothing new.
“But times have changed, our culture is rising,” he told This Week In Asia . “Even Isaan food is now in fancy shopping malls … So those who despise us, are insulting themselves.”
Many Isaan people are ancestors of ethnic Lao forcibly moved onto the plains of northeastern Thailand following a failed 19th century rebellion against Thai suzerainty over Laos.
The region has been subjected to endless drives to align its people more closely with the dominant Central Thai identity constructed around the monarchy, held in place by the army and education system and centred on capital Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River.
But Isaan, with its poverty and patchy infrastructure, has maintained a distinct culture, language, music, food and religious practices. In the 1960s and 70s, it was even home to a flickering communist insurgency in some provinces.
People from the region often move elsewhere to work as labourers, drivers and cleaners, only to be sneered at by wealthy city-dwellers. Yet Isaan forms a potent political power base.
“Resistance made Bangkok view Isaan with distrust,” said journalist Sanitsuda Ekkachai, who specialises in Thai social issues. “The disdain is deep-rooted.”
However, the backlash sparked by the Clubhouse comments this month also revealed “a more open Thai society” where “ethnic prejudice against people in the northeast is now unacceptable”, she said.
As speculation swirls that a general election could be held early next year, the row has taken on a political edge.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader turned prime minister who led the 2014 coup that toppled Yingluck, is widely expected to dissolve parliament and seek re-election soon. But to win, the unpopular leader will need allies in Isaan.
His support base currently comprises a a patchwork alliance of army, palace and business interests representing much of Thailand’s elite. But after seven years in power, he faces large-scale pro-democracy protests, an economy left in tatters by the pandemic and political challenges emerging from within his own ranks.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Thaksin has been using Clubhouse and YouTube to tug at his old base.
“Poverty is a structural problem,” Thaksin said in a YouTube video published in late October, in which he spoke in the Isaan dialect. “I want to come back to help take the region towards true development.”
“When the economy is bad, grass-roots people like us pay the highest price,” he said.