Young democratic activists in Asia show solidarity with their counterparts in Myanmar under a loose transnational network called the “Milk Tea Alliance”. But in a region where democracy was never allowed to get past the kitchen door, will the authorities share the power soup?
It started as a misunderstanding that was picked up and heated by trolls, who bounced back when it bubbled to a stinging joke and have since steamed up the region and mixed discontent in a bridge of solidarity that causes authoritarian stomachs to shatter.
Last spring, a Thai actor and teenage god innocently retweeted a photo montage of four Asian silhouettes with a short caption identifying them as “countries”. They included a photograph of Hong Kong, officially a semi-autonomous territory under Chinese control, which was immediately picked up by Beijing supporters.
Vachirawit Chivaaree – star of “2gether”, a TV show popular in Asia – retweeted it without much thought, he later explained. When he learned of this, the Thai teenage god immediately apologized and the matter should have ended there.
But it did not. The Thai star, known as “Bright”, could never have imagined that his Twitter clicks would trigger a firestorm that galvanized young people across borders to protest in cyberspace and on real streets against authoritarianism.
On Sunday, in the latest demonstration of transnational solidarity, protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia took to the streets to condemn the military coup in Myanmar and demanded a return to democracy.
Thousands more in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia protested online and responded to a call from Myanmar’s pro-democracy campaigns. Many of them posted or took pictures of themselves with signs and flags with #MilkTeaAlliance: the hashtag linked to Bright’s Twitter gaffe in April 2020.
As liberal democratic values in many Asian countries are hammering at military coups, security breaches ordered by communist party authorities or monarchical lèse-majesty guards, citizens across the region are forcing bullets, arrests and harassment to fight. Others, living in countries with civil liberties and guarantees of fundamental rights, come together to share information, campaign strategies or simply keep the message alive.
Pot calls the kettle black
In a distorted way, credit to #MilkTeaAlliance goes to China and its legions of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supporters who gain access to Twitter, which is banned in the country but accessible to “citizens” who police social media.
Instead of accepting Bright’s apology as early as April 2020, Beijing’s trolls adopted an aggressive online “wolf war” strategy, named after a 3D blockbuster with a muscular Chinese command in the lead role.
>> Click here for more information on China’s “wolf warriors” strategy
Digging around the internet, the troll pro-Beijing aroused outrage and revealed an Instagram post by Bright’s girlfriend, Weeraya “Nnevvy” Sukaram, who seemed to be proposing support for Taiwan, a democratically autonomous island that China considers part of its territory.
However, the Chinese trolls adopted a strategy to criticize the Thai authorities and dredge up on previous atrocities – including a 1970s paramilitary attack on left-wing students protesting against a military dictatorship at a university in Bangkok.
The effect was electric for Thai protesters demanding democratic reforms and the loosening of the iron link between the country’s military and monarchy.
The inequality between Chinese trolls trying to attack Thai social media users by targeting the authorities who all protested triggered funny memes and messages picked up by Hong Kong and Taiwanese netizens who were also harassed by Beijing.
“So fun to see the pro-CCP network army try to attack Bright. They believe that every Thai person must be like those who love Emperor Xi, tweeted former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
So fun to watch the pro-CCP online army trying to attack Bright. They believe that every Thai person must be like them, who love Emperor Xi. What they do not understand is that Bright’s fans are young and progressive, and the pro-CCP army always makes the wrong attacks. # Nnevvy pic.twitter.com/WSJv2c5uXB
– Nathan Law 羅冠聰 (@nathanlawkc) April 12, 2020
No one knows exactly how the idea of an alliance of tea and milk originated as a symbol of a unified position against Beijing. But the symbolism was obvious to the people of the region and accounted for its popularity.
Tea is drunk all over East and Southeast Asia in many different ways. In China, it is full without milk. In Taiwan, bubbelte, or “boba”, is deliciously milky and comes with tough tapioca balls or bubbles. Thai tea is sweetened with condensed milk and a cup in Hong Kong is drunk with milk in the English way, a cherished hangover from British colonial days.
And so the Milk Tea Alliance was born. “It was completely random, really a very strange story at first,” explained Dorain Malkovic, author of several books on China and Asia, editor of the French daily La Croix, which covered the story last year. “It started with Thailand, spread to Taiwan, then Hong Kong, where different types of milk are drunk and now it has spread to Burma,” Malkovic said, using the country name still used by the US government and Myanmar’s insiders.
Generation Z is getting older
On February 1, when the military – or Tatmadaw – seized power in Myanmar and arrested civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, it was easy for Burmese Democratic activists to pick up tea leaves online.
“Burmese youth are really inspired by how Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists carried out the umbrella movement and the Anti-Extradition movement,” Malovic said, referring to the 2014 use of umbrellas as a passive tool against police tear gas and 2019. protesting against a controversial extradition law.
The effects were felt just days after protests broke out in Myanmar in early February. Journalists in the commercial capital, Yangon, reported that protesters used the three-fingered “Hunger Games” greeting first adopted by Thai activists as opposed to the overthrow of an elected government in 2014 by an administration led by a former army chief.
Protesters in Yangon show three-finger “Hunger Games” greeting. © Reuters
The #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag enabled protesters in Myanmar to access manuals on Hong Kong’s protest tactics – including flash bombs and rapidly changing hashtags – which were translated into Burmese and published online.
But while the original MilkTeaAlliance was a united defense against nationalist Chinese netizens, it has since expanded to show solidarity against authoritarianism.
“It’s a Generation Z spirit coalition,” Malovic said, referring to the generation of “zoomers” born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. “This is a generation born with all the technical equipment and expertise – phones, social networks, encrypted messages. It is a generation that does not have a traditional ideological consciousness, such as left or right, but has a prism of “good” and “bad”, or our conscience tells us what is good and bad. “
Weak democracies, strong militaries
The absence of ideology has enabled protesters fighting for the release of Suu Kyi – a former civilian leader who worked near Beijing and signed a series of agreements with President Xi – to find a common ground with Hong Kong activists opposing the Chinese leader. .
The Milk Tea Alliance has addressed the Chinese Communist Party on a wide range of issues, including its opposition to the Muslim Uighur minority. But it has also gained supporters in India by exploiting that anti-Beijing sentiment in a country with a volatile, disputed border with China, but where a majority Hindu nationalist government is conducting its own counterattack against the Indian Muslim community.
Similarly, Suu Kyi’s defense of Tatmadaw against genocide allegations against the Muslim Rohingya minority is also overlooked, as activists are currently focusing on demands for her release and the end of junta control in Myanmar. Exactly what that would mean given that Myanmar never had a functioning democracy, with the constitution enabling only a guiding democracy, is not known.
The ambiguities reflect the blurred lines of diplomatic trade and business in a region with a shaky democratic tradition overshadowed by China’s growing power.
“Beijing was dealing with Suu Kyi and thought she would be the next power in Myanmar. Suu Kyi believed that by supporting the military against Rohingya and by supporting the military, she could do more to change the constitution. “Obviously she lost that game,” said Malkovic.
>> Read more: Junta holds the cards in Myanmar’s guiding democracy
Although it is too early to say who will win the day in the Myanmar crisis, most experts do not focus on pro-democracy activists.
The West has very few cards to play in addition to sanctions against military top officers, many of whom were already under sanctions over the Rohingya atrocities, Malkovic stated. The United States, the EU and the UN Security Council have, among other things, called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional grouping to help mediate in the crisis. But Myanmar’s neighbors, with trade, migration, human trafficking and security issues at stake, lack the will and teeth to take on Tatmadaw, according to many experts.
China, as a major regional power, can play a crucial role, but so far Beijing’s position has been ambiguous, according to Malkovic. “Beijing is very pragmatic, it will see which way the wind blows,” he explained.
In recent days, Tatmadaw has begun cracking down on protests in Myanmar in a larger escalation following a more cautious approach adopted immediately after the coup. On Sunday, at least 18 people were killed in the worst bloodshed since the act of power on February 1.
The measure has been condemned by top diplomats in the United States, Canada and other Western democracies. But for several years Myanmar’s generals have shaken off diplomatic pressure, in part because of support from China and Russia.
While Malkovic, an experienced Asian expert, welcomes the extraordinary online mobilization of the Milk Tea Alliance and other movements, he is not very optimistic. “If you look at Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, you see that the autocratic powers are just driving the car,” he said, referring to Monday’s trial of 47 Hong Kong activists accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion” to hold a informal primary last summer. .
“We believed that social networks would help democratic movements. But on the contrary, they are used very cleverly by autocratic governments, says Malkovic. “The use of technology we thought would be useful, but in fact the technology is used by autocratic governments to look at everyone.”