International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, Balkans and around the world. Gabriela Bernal is aSeoul-based Asia-Pacific and Far East Analyst. In her text entitled “Netizens Alliance over the cup of Milk Tea” she is analysing the #MilkTeaAlliance movement in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong and its effect on the fight for political reform and fair rights.
(Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong supporting each other’s democracy quest)
Although Hong Kong has been the main face of democracy movements in Asia over the past few years, it is not alone in its fight for political reform and fair rights. Together with Hong Kong stand its fellow Asian partners Taiwan and Thailand; both also engaging in a battle to ensure democracy not only survives, but thrives.
The link between the three has reached new heights recently under a new name: the Milk Tea Alliance. The name represents a shared passion for sweet tea drinks in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance first became popular in April but the simple hashtag has now grown into a much bigger movement uniting like-minded political activists in Asia.
Although the name might sound cute, the message is clear and serious: Those in power will not be allowed to overrule the will of the people and continue committing gross human rights abuses and abusing political authority.
The Milk Tea Alliance was the product of an online internet war between pro-China netizens and (at first) mainly Thai youngsters defending a famous actor. The drama all started with a retweet by Thai actor and star of the popular show “2gether” Vachirawit “Bright” Chivaaree of a photo categorizing Hong Kong as a “country”.
The actor quickly apologized, claiming he had ‘not read the caption properly.’ But Chinese netizens were still not satisfied. They then went after his girlfriend and started criticizing her for a reply she made on one of her photos. When one netizen complimented her for looking pretty like a “Chinese girl” she replied “Taiwanese girl.”
Chinese netizens were severely insulted by her reply, insinuating that she preferred to be compared to a Taiwanese rather than a Chinese. The hate levels further increased when she retweeted a post that said COVID-19 might have originated in a Chinese laboratory.
The celebrities quickly found support from Thais and other netizens throughout Asia. But instead of hurling back insults at the Chinese netizens, many internet users siding with the Thais chose to adopt a more humoristic approach and started posting memes on Twitter and other social media channels as a response to the comments being made by Chinese netizens.
The Twitter war quickly evolved into a much broader debate about China and supporting democracy movements in Asia. The angry responses by Chinese netizens only made the situation worse, giving the opposing camp more reasons to grow and make the once cute hashtag into somewhat of a political movement.
Hong Kongers quickly joined the movement since the beginning in support of the Thais. The social media debate grew even larger when Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted in support of Thailand on April 12. He also mentioned how he was blacklisted and even detained by Thai authorities in 2016 when he travelled to Bangkok to give talks at several universities.
The political use of the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance has since grown rapidly among Hong Kong netizens. Given their own experience fighting political oppression and protesting with massive numbers over the years, Hong Kongers seem to understand exactly what the Thais are going through. Recent promulgation of the ‘iron fist’ law – National Security Law is its prime source.
Influential and much quoted European Political Institute IFIMES recently suggested “this kind of attitude … should push the European Union to act – beyond expressing grave concern – and take the Hong Kong question seriously. The enactment of the National Security Law is a litmus test of the EU’s capacity to defend its interests and universal values in the context of the ‘Great Decoupling’ ".
Hence, by end of summer, Joshua Wong again took to Twitter to express his solidarity with the Thai protestors, saying: “As the situation in Thailand turns critical, I hope all freedom-loving people can stand with Thailand.” Hong Kong netizens have been expressing their support for the Thai democracy movement since July, when protests first started reemerging in Thailand.
Since then, Hong Kong netizens have continued to support pro-democracy movements in both Thailand and Taiwan by using the #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag.
In another example of the growth of the #MilkTeaAlliance, Taiwanese youth have also joined the conversation and are standing in together with their Thai and Hong Kong counterparts. One solidarity rally took place two weeks ago outside of the Thai representative office in Taiwan. More recently, on August 16, a large rally took place at Taipei Main Station to support democracy movements in both Hong Kong and Thailand.
The rally was organized by the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy (台灣推動泰國民主聯盟, TATD). The event description for the demonstration even referenced the Milk Tea Alliance social media phenomenon; further evidence of its impact on real-life political activism.
According to the group, an estimated 150 to 200 people attended the event, including NGOs, and members from the Green Party. In their remarks, organizers reviewed the history of authoritarian repression in Thailand, beginning in 1932 up until the present day. The situation of political dissidents living in exile was also discussed.
Further, the protestors had several demands directed to the Thai government:
Besides supporting the Thais, the protestors at the Taipei rally also showed solidarity with their neighbours in Hong Kong. They accused the current Hong Kong leadership of systematically eroding the freedoms of speech and assembly among other rights guaranteed under the Basic Law. The organizing group added that they hope to be able to “build pan-Asian solidarity against tyranny, especially against youth across the region.”
According to a foreign ministry spokesperson, Taiwan respected the comments and positions of the Milk Tea Alliance on the development of the political situation in Thailand but it took no position itself.
Democracy in Thailand has been under continuous threat since a 2014 military coup led by general Prayuth Chan-o-cha who overthrew the then democratically-elected government. Since then, Thailand was ruled by a military junta. Although elections were held in Thailand last year, many locals were skeptical about the validity of the results and allegations of a rigged election were many.
Widespread discontents with the government, lack of democratic rule, and overall lack in leadership have led to massive protests over the past few weeks. But what makes these protests even more significant is the tone young people are using to refer to the Thai Monarchy.
Despite it being illegal to criticize the Thai royal family, students have chosen to speak out anyway. The current king, King Vajiralongkorn, resides in Germany for most of the year and has been criticized for his indifference to the impact of the pandemic and worsening economic crisis back home.
But Thais weren’t only protesting for their own rights. In fact, the Milk Tea Alliance was on full display during recent student-led protests in Bangkok, with signs representing Hong Kong and independence for Taiwan waved by the protestors at the demonstrations.
The hashtag has also been one of the top trending on social media sites in Thailand such as Facebook and Twitter. According to Reuters, as of Aug. 18, the hashtag was used in more than 100,000 tweets on Sunday alone and nearly 200,000 times over the past eight days. One student activist explained why Thais can relate to Hong Kongers: Thais “understand how the rights of those in Hong Kong are being taken away because we have faced the same thing”.
In fact, the recent #MilkTeaAlliance protests are not the first time Thais show solidarity with their fellow Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident, JUne 4, young Thais took to the streets in Bangkok’s Chinatown to demand freedom for Hong Kong. The student activists also made a statement saying “Chinese imperialism” is threatening the independence and livelihood in many nations, including Thailand.
Indeed, many young Thais have a rather negative perception of China. According to one Thai professor, “The Prayuth government has never been well-received among young Thais and because China never condemns coups in Thailand, there’s a negative perception towards China among the young, which is why they feel that the call for democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong is more suited to their current sentiment.”
The response to the #MilkTeaAlliance movement has been mixed, with both opposing and supporting sides. As expected, the main opposition to the movement has come from mainland Chinese netizens and Chinese government officials.
A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the newly formed alliance, stating that it is of no concern to China. “People who are pro-Hong Kong independence or pro-Taiwan independence often collude online, this is nothing new. Their conspiracy will never succeed,” he said.
Despite the opposition, however, there are many more who support this pro-democracy movement. Besides Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong, citizens from countries throughout Asia have also voiced their interest and support for the alliance.
Despite the geographical distance between these countries, a Philippine Milk Tea Alliance Twitter account has already been created. For example, many Filipinos have taken to social media to express their support for the Milk Tea Alliance given their own experiences with the Chinese government. The Philippines has been in a dispute with China for years over territories in the South China Sea, an issue that has greatly hurt China’s image—especially among young Filipinos.
Countries situated along the Mekong River have also started joining the alliance, with many Vietnamese and Cambodian netizens taking to social media to protest China’s use of dams in the Mekong region.
Many such posts on sites like Twitter and Facebook are already using the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.
Even netizens from India have voiced their interest in the alliance after border skirmishes with China soured India-China relations earlier this year.
Although the Milk Tea Alliance started off as a relatively small group of netizens defending Thai celebrities, the hashtag has grown into a much bigger political movement. The tweets, memes, and online posts have now translated into offline action with pro-democracy protesters standing together despite their geographical differences.
The Milk Tea Alliance may well grow to include pro-democracy voices from many more countries in the region and its impact could be far greater than previous online-generated political movements. Even though the older generation of politicians and leaders may not see the voices of netizens or student protesters as a threat to their power, it is only a matter of time before the people rebel.
In the words of Joshua Wong: you can’t kill them all. They can imprison, try and silence, arrest, and threaten, but this new generation will not simply stand idly by and watch their country, culture, city, rights, and values be destroyed by oppressive forces.
There is strength in numbers and strength in unity. This newly strengthened solidarity between the different protests groups in the region shows how seemingly weak and powerless people can have a voice and demand the entire world’s attention.
With the world in shambles and leadership severely lacking, young people are proving that they are not afraid to fight for a better future and to stand together throughout this process. That is the true power and potential of this Milk Tea Alliance.
Ljubljana/Paris/Beirut, 23 October 2020
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.