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Food & Beverage

Foodpanda faces backlash after calling Thai protest 'terrorism'

Remark proves costly in competitive food delivery market despite apologies

A boycott could deal a heavy blow to Foodpanda at a time when Thailand's third COVID-19 wave forces restaurants to serve only takeout. (File photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Asian food delivery giant Foodpanda has become the target of a boycott by pro-democracy protesters in Thailand after the subsidiary of Frankfurt-listed Delivery Hero made a remark against rallygoers' freedom of speech.

On Monday, #BanFoodpanda was listed for a second straight day as one of the most trending hashtags in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Over a million tweets were made using the hashtag.

A boycott could deal a heavy blow to the food delivery operator in a highly competitive market. The country's third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced restaurants in affected provinces, including Bangkok, to serve only takeout. Foodpanda could miss out as competitors ride high.

According to food delivery research by Singaporean consultancy Momentum Works, Foodpanda took up 23% of Thailand's $2.8 billion market in 2020 in terms of gross merchandise value, while Grab's GrabFood and Line's Lineman covered 50% and 20% respectively. Budget carrier AirAsia joined the bandwagon by making a deal with Indonesia's Gojek to purchase its Thai business. Gojek's GoFood had a 7% share in the market.

The reason for the user backlash is a statement that Foodpanda issued on Sunday, declaring it would fire a rider who had participated in the pro-democracy movement.

"We will expedite the strict implementation of the rules of the company by dismissing the driver from his service immediately," the company said on Twitter. "Please note that Foodpanda has a policy against all forms of violence and terrorism. We are willing to fully assist the authorities in prosecuting criminals." 

The remark was made after footage from Sunday's pro-democracy rally captured a man present when a royal portrait was set on fire. In another clip, the man was seen driving off on a motorcycle with a woman. The vehicle had a thermal bag with a Foodpanda logo attached to its saddle.

Portraits of royal family members are a common sight in Thailand. Setting fire to one could be considered a royal insult under the country's archaic strict lese-majeste law, and offenders could face charges. According to the organization Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the Foodpanda rider was arrested by plainclothes police officers on Monday night.

The rally, which was held in defiance of a ban on public gatherings imposed to contain the delta variant epidemic, called for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for mishandling the COVID-19 situation. Roughly a thousand protesters in Bangkok also insisted on cuts in the royal and military budgets, as well as securing mRNA vaccines.

Free speech is a basic human right that holds even during a state of emergency. Protesters and online sympathizers strongly criticized Foodpanda for using the term "terrorism" in connection with rally.

The company posted an apologetic comment on Twitter on Monday morning. In the afternoon, it issued a longer statement. "Foodpanda respects the freedom of speech and expression, and we do not believe in implementing policies that impact freedom of speech and expression," the announcement read. "Foodpanda assures freedom of speech and expression is not terrorism and the rider will not be dismissed due to this incident." 

The apologies did not stop users and restaurants from leaving the platform. Some claimed on Monday that Foodpanda's account deletion system reported being under maintenance and could not process their request. It is unclear if the flock of requests had created a system failure, or Foodpanda had cut access on purpose, or the timing was merely a coincidence. The glitch only added fuel to online sympathizers' outrage.

It was the second time for Foodpanda to come under such scrutiny by the pro-democracy movement. Last August, netizens identified it and about 25 other companies as advertisers on Nation TV, a pro-establishment mouthpiece.

A boycott then forced Foodpanda to suspend all of its ads on the channel over concerns about its reputation.

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