Pro-democracy activists in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand find common cause

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ON FEBRUARY 1ST, the day that Myanmar’s military deposed the country’s democratically elected government, a Twitter user uploaded a picture of Royal Myanmar Teamix, a local blend of tea. The tweet has since been shared more than 22,000 times. Alongside the image was a hashtag that has been used by activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand for almost a year: #MilkTeaAlliance. Placards with the slogan appear at pro-democracy street demonstrations across South-East Asia. What exactly is the Milk Tea Alliance, and how much do its supporters have in common?

The term first spread online in April 2020, when Vachirawit Chivaaree, a popular Thai actor, sent a tweet that seemed to support Hong Kong’s independence from China. Chinese nationalists piled in with insults, and Mr Vachirawit’s fans fought back. As posts ricocheted between users in Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan, the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance kept cropping up. The name is a reference to the milky tea that is drunk hot in Hong Kong, with tapioca pearls in Taiwan, and iced and sweetened in Thailand. This differs from the neat tea often drunk in China. The preference for milk can be seen as a hangover from British colonialism (in Hong Kong and Myanmar) or trade connections (in Taiwan and Thailand). “Undoubtedly we are countries with heavy Chinese influence but at the same time we also share this cosmopolitan history,” says Wasana Wongusurawat, of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. For protesters, how they take their tea represents a common pro-democracy, anti-China feeling.

Alliances between democracy activists in the region are nothing new. In 2014, students in Taiwan occupied the country’s legislature to protest against a trade pact with mainland China, carrying sunflowers as a symbol of hope. The movement spurred greater links with protesters in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrations rocked the city later that year. And in 2016 Joshua Wong, a prominent activist from Hong Kong, was detained at a Bangkok airport while travelling to speak to Thai students. But what sets the Milk Tea Alliance apart is its loud online presence. Outside mainland China’s firewall, the internet is hard to control—although governments have tried. Myanmar’s army shut off the internet in the wake of the coup, and later restricted access to Facebook, the main online source of information for many people in the country. In January, an internet provider in Hong Kong invoked the new national-security law to censor a pro-democracy website for the first time. But activists are adept at staying one step ahead. The Milk Tea Alliance has no leader, making organisers hard to target. Supporters share tips on how to avoid being identified when using the internet and on how street protesters can rapidly disperse.

This fluidity is both a strength and a weakness. “In my opinion the alliance is more imagined at this stage,” says Roger Huang of Macquarie University in Sydney. Not all social-media users who use the hashtag hold liberal views. Some are supporters of Donald Trump, and see the former American president’s aggressive stance towards China as a kind of kinship with South-East Asian countries. The alliance is also open to opportunism. In June last year, when Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed at the border in the Himalayas, the hashtag was picked up by nationalists in India, who share the penchant for milky tea but face accusations of undermining democratic freedoms. And there are limits to the solidarity that members can offer each other virtually. In Myanmar, where security forces have killed dozens of protesters in recent weeks, many are understandably focused on their struggle against the generals. The most that supporters of the Milk Tea Alliance can offer is moral support, says Ms Wongsurawat. She adds: “I think at the end of the day each movement in each country will have to fight its own fight.”