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‘Milk Tea Alliance’ blends Asian discontents but how strong is the brew?

Myanmar migrants in Thailand hold "Milk Tea Alliance" signs at a Bangkok protest on February 28, 2021.

Myanmar migrants in Thailand hold "Milk Tea Alliance" signs at a Bangkok protest on February 28, 2021.

Young pro-democracy activists in Asia are displaying solidarity with their counterparts in Myanmar under a loose transnational online network called the “Milk Tea Alliance”. But in a region where democracy was never allowed to get firmly past the kitchen door, will the authorities share the power soup?

It started as a misunderstanding that was taken up and heated by trolls, which backfired when it bubbled into a stinging joke and has since been steaming up the region, blending discontents in a solidarity brew that is making authoritarian stomachs churn.

Last spring, a Thai actor and teen idol innocently retweeted a photo montage of four Asian skylines with a brief 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 across Asia – retweeted it without much thought, he later explained. When it was brought to his notice, the Thai teen idol promptly apologised and the matter should have ended there.

But it didn’t. The Thai star, known as “Bright”, could never have imagined that his Twitter click would spark a firestorm, galvanising youths across borders to protest in cyberspace and on real-world streets against authoritarianism.

On Sunday, in the latest display of transnational solidarity, protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia took to the streets to denounce the military coup in Myanmar and call for a return to democracy.

Thousands more in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia held online protests, answering a call from Myanmar pro-democracy campaigners. Many of them posted or took pictures of themselves holding signs and flags bearing #MilkTeaAlliance: the hashtag linked to Bright’s April 2020 Twitter gaffe.

As liberal democratic values in many Asian countries take a hammering from military coups, security crackdowns ordered by Communist party authorities or monarchical lèse-majesté guardians, citizens across the region are braving bullets, arrests and harassment to put up a fight. Others, living in countries with civil liberties and fundamental rights guarantees, are joining forces to share information, campaign strategies or simply keep the message alive.

Pot calls the kettle black

In a twisted way, credit for the #MilkTeaAlliance goes to China and its legions of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supporters who are granted access to Twitter, which is banned in the country but accessible for “citizens” policing the social media site.

Instead of accepting Bright’s apology back in April 2020, Beijing’s trolls adopted an aggressive online “wolf warrior” strategy, named after a 3D blockbuster starring a muscled Chinese commando.

>> Click here for more on China’s “wolf warrior” strategy

Digging around the Internet, pro-Beijing trolls stoked the outrage, uncovering an Instagram post by Bright’s girlfriend, Weeraya “Nnevvy” Sukaram, that appeared to suggest support for Taiwan, a democratically self-ruled island that China considers part of its territory.

The Chinese trolls however adopted a strategy of criticising Thai authorities and dredging up past atrocities – including a 1970s paramilitary crackdown on leftist students protesting military dictatorship at a Bangkok university.

The effect was electric for Thai protesters calling for democratic reforms and the loosening of the iron nexus between the country’s military and monarchy.

The incongruity of Chinese trolls trying to attack Thai social media users by targeting the authorities they were all protesting sparked hilarious memes and messages that were picked up by Hong Kong and Taiwanese netizens also harassed by Beijing.

“So funny watching the pro-CCP online army trying to attack Bright. They think every Thai person must be like them, who love Emperor Xi,” tweeted former Hong Kong lawmaker Nathan Law, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

No one knows exactly how the idea for an alliance of tea and milk originated as a symbol of a unified anti-Beijing stance. But the symbolism was obvious for people in the region, accounting for its popularity.

Tea is drunk across East and South-East Asia in many different ways. In China, it’s drunk without milk. In Taiwan, bubble tea, or “boba” tea, is deliciously milky and comes with chewy tapioca balls or bubbles. Thai tea is sweetened with condensed milk and a cuppa in Hong Kong is drunk with milk the English way, a cherished hangover of British colonial days.

And so, the Milk Tea Alliance was born. “It was totally random, really a very strange story at the beginning,” explained Dorain Malkovic, author of several books on China and Asia editor of French daily, La Croix, who covered the story last year. “It started with Thailand, spread to Taiwan, then Hong Kong, where different types of milk tea are drunk and now it has spread to Burma,” said Malkovic using the country name still used by the US government and Myanmar insiders.

Generation Z comes of age

On February 1, when the military – or Tatmadaw – seized power in Myanmar, arresting civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, it was easy for Burmese pro-democracy activists to pick up the online tea leaves.

“Burmese youngsters are really inspired by the way the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists conducted the Umbrella Movement and the Anti-Extradition Movement,” said Malovic, referring to the 2014 use of umbrellas as a passive resistance tool against police tear gas and the 2019 protests against a controversial extradition law.

The influences were on display just days after protests broke out in Myanmar in early February. Journalists in the commercial capital, Yangon, reported demonstrators were using the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute first adopted by Thai activists opposed to the 2014 overthrowing of an elected government by an administration led by a former army chief.

The #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag enabled protesters in Myanmar to access manuals on Hong Kong protest tactics – including flash bombs and fast-changing hashtags – that were translated into Burmese and posted online.

But while the original MilkTeaAlliance was a united defence against nationalist Chinese netizens, it has since broadened into a display of solidarity against authoritarianism.

“It’s a coalition of the spirit of the Generation Z,” said Malovic, referring to the generation of “zoomers” born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. “This is a generation born with all the technical devices and expertise – phones, social networks, encrypted messages. It’s a generation that does not have a traditional ideological consciousness, such as the Left or the Right, but has a prism of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or our conscience tells us what’s good and bad.”

Weak democracies, strong militaries

The absence of ideology has enabled protesters campaigning for the release of Suu Kyi – a former civilian leader who worked closely with Beijing and signed a range of agreements with President Xi – to find common cause with Hong Kong activists vehemently opposed to the Chinese leader.

The Milk Tea Alliance has targeted the Chinese Communist Party over a broad range of issues, including its crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority. But it has also gained followers in India, tapping into the anti-Beijing sentiment in a country with a volatile, disputed border with China, but where a majoritarian Hindu nationalist government is conducting its own crackdown against the Indian Muslim community.

Similarly, Suu Kyi’s defense of the Tatmadaw against genocide accusations against the Rohingya Muslim minority is also overlooked as activists focus, for the moment, on demands for her release and the end of junta control in Myanmar. Exactly what that would entail given that Myanmar never had a functioning democracy, with the constitution allowing only for a tutelage democracy, is not known.

The ambiguities mirror the blurred lines of diplomatic, trade and business dealings in a region with a shaky democratic tradition overshadowed by China’s rising power.

“Beijing was dealing with Suu Kyi, thinking she would be the next power in Myanmar. Suu Kyi believed that by backing the military against the Rohingya and by supporting the military, she could do more to change the constitution. Obviously, she lost that bet,” said Malkovic.

>> Read more: Junta holds the cards in Myanmar’s tutelage democracy

While it’s too early to say who will win the day in the Myanmar crisis, most experts are not betting on pro-democracy activists.

The West has very few cards to play besides sanctions against top military officers, many of whom were already under sanctions over the Rohingya atrocities, noted Malkovic. The US, EU and UN Security Council, among others, have urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional grouping to help mediate in the crisis. But Myanmar’s neighbours, with trade, migration, trafficking and security issues at stake, lack the willingness and teeth to take on the Tatmadaw, according to many experts.

China, as a major regional power, can play a decisive role, but so far, Beijing’s position has been ambiguous, according to Malkovic. “Beijing is very pragmatic, it will see which way the wind is blowing,” he explained.

Over the past few days, the Tatmadaw has begun cracking down on protesters in Myanmar in a major 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 February 1 power grab.

The crackdown has been condemned by top diplomats in the US, Canada and other western democracies. But Myanmar’s generals have for years shrugged off diplomatic pressure, partly because of the support of China and Russia.

While welcoming the extraordinary online mobilisation of the Milk Tea Alliance and other movements, Malkovic, a seasoned Asia expert, is not very optimistic. “If you look at Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, you see autocratic powers are just driving the car,” he said, referring to Monday’s trial of 47 Hong Kong activists charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” for holding an informal primary last summer.

“We thought social networks would help democratic movements. But on the contrary, they are very smartly used by autocratic governments,” said Malkovic. “The use of technology we thought would be useful, but in fact the technology is being used by autocratic governments to watch everybody.”