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The historically underdeveloped rice-producing region of Isaan and its people have long faced discrimination in Thailand. Photo: Handout

#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
Vijitra Duangdeein Bangkok
Online abuse aimed at Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region on popular audio chat app Clubhouse has provoked a backlash among its people, who make up roughly one-third of the population and have helped swing past elections yet have long been looked down upon by the country’s Bangkok-focused elite.

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.

This discrimination reared its head again in a Clubhouse chat on November 4, in which Isaan people – who share a proud culture and dialect closer to neighbouring Laos – were called “dog-eaters”, “lazy … real-life zombies” and incapable of anything more than “growing rice for city folk to eat”. One user even dragged K-pop star Lisa of girl group Blackpink into the discussion, questioning why she had left the region of her birth for South Korea “if Isaan is really that great”.

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.”

Cultural divide

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.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was propelled to power by voters in Isaan. Photo: AP
It was the region’s voters who helped propel policeman-turned-billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra to power in 2001, and did the same for his sister Yingluck some 10 years later. Both remain popular in Isaan for their promises to improve the health, education and livelihoods of a farming populace long ignored by Bangkok, yet both now live in self-exile after their tenures were cut short by military coups.

“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.

Election speculation

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.

As Prayuth’s Thailand teeters, is an election, coup or bitter stalemate next?

Meanwhile, former prime minister Thaksin has been using Clubhouse and YouTube to tug at his old base.

While he is currently unable to return to Thailand – he faces jail for a corruption conviction – his daughter Paethongtan Shinawatra was recently made a chief adviser of Pheu Thai, the country’s largest opposition party.

“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.”

From his home in Khon Kaen, Pech the cricket farmer said it was Thailand’s poorest who had suffered most from the coronavirus pandemic – hinting at an underlying economic despair that could yet swing future elections.

“When the economy is bad, grass-roots people like us pay the highest price,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Bangkok elite risks poll backlash from rice region