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The Milk Tea Alliance: An Online War of Democracy

A few things are capable of bringing nations together. It may be a common heritage or sharing cultural similarities, yet history has shown that nothing brings two countries together more than a hatred of a common enemy. For Asian countries, this dreaded bogeyman has always been the same, China, and more importantly, the lack of democracy that they inspire.

In the past year, countries across South-East Asia have joined hands as a sign of solidarity in the face of adversity from both home and abroad. This unique union is symbolically represented by a common love that these nations share, milk tea. Who knew a nice cup of Yorkshire could be so political! So, let’s learn more about the phenomenon known as the Milk Tea Alliance.

What is the Alliance?

In true modern-day form, this union of Asian youths began as a simple internet meme. Yet soon after, it evolved from its humble online origins into a multinational pro-democracy movement that gained a significant amount of support across the continent.

Though the movement is primarily made up of online protests, it soon played a vital role in many present-day demonstrations along the streets of South-East Asia. Protests were not only targeting domestic issues, but they also allowed for a cross-promotion of causes from all around the world.

A Brief History of the Alliance

In the short history of the alliance, the movement has surged from simple online trolling to binding an entire continent together in protest against anti-authoritarianism and poured fuel on the pro-democracy fire. And despite the immense seriousness of the movement, its origins were unintentionally hilarious!

How Did it Begin?

So what was the catalyst for lighting this international powder keg? Just a simple misplaced tweet. In April 2020, Thai TV actor Vachirawit “Bright” Chivaaree, who was popular in China at the time, retweeted a series of images on Twitter that referred to Hong Kong as a “country” despite it being a special administrative region of China.

milk tea alliance tweet
The altered tweet from “Bright” Chivaaree. Following the outrage, he changed the word “countries” with “locations”

The backlash against Vachirawit was instant as Chinese netizens, or online users, began calling for a boycott of his show. Though he apologized and deleted the tweet, the online haters soon tracked down a 2017 post by his girlfriend, model Weeraya “Nnevvy” Sukaram, that suggested support for Taiwan, a democratically self-ruled island that China considers part of its territory.

As the attacks continued, the insults began targeting other aspects of Thailand, including Thai King Vajiralongkorn and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. However, to the annoyance of the Chinese, the Thai people supported their criticisms! Due to strict laws, Thai people are forbidden from bad-mouthing the government or the Thai royal family, so the Chinese did it for them!

Thai netizens did however take to social media to defend both Vachirawit and Nnevvy. This return-fire soon took aim at the ruling China Communist Party (CCP), which did not go down well. Soon after, the Chinese embassy in Bangkok posted a long statement on Facebook condemning the criticisms, claiming that the “online noises only reflect bias and ignorance of its maker”, setting the stage for an all-out online war.

How it Escalated

You may be surprised to learn that China isn’t very popular with most of its neighbours, shocking, isn’t it? Recently, two nations have been dealing with the brunt of China’s aggression, as they have done for many years. Netizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan were eager for their long-awaited opportunity to berate their Chinese oppressors and bash the CCP.

In return, Thai netizens started showing support for both country’s ongoing struggle for democracy and desire for independence. As such, the movement began to evolve from a simple anti-Beijing sentiment to a deeper pro-democracy and anti-authoritarianism protests.

Protests on the streets of Hong Kong. Photo by Studio Incendo on Flickr

As the movement continued to grow, it garnered further support from neighbouring countries that were fighting similar battles. It quickly became the perfect avenue for oppressed Asian youth to finally voice their concerns without fear of retaliation. As such, these netizens began to unite in mid-April under the #MilkTeaAlliance on Twitter.

Why is it Called “the Milk Tea Alliance”?

I know what you’re thinking, what does milk tea have to do with it? Well, it’s more than just a hatred for Chinese policies and authoritarianism that these countries share in common. South-East Asian countries also share a deep love of milk tea.

Each founding member of the alliance has its own preferred style of milk tea, which symbolically represents them in the union. Taiwan has bubble tea; Hong Kong has silk stocking tea, while Thailand has its own unique Thai tea. China would be the natural symbolic enemy of this alliance as they notoriously do not add milk to their tea.

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Who is in the Alliance?

The original founders of the movement were netizens of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. However, the alliance quickly gained more followers as the year progressed.

As each new member joined, they would add their own style of milk tea, or the closest thing they had to offer. One of the earliest and most vocal additions to the alliance was India. Following a brief yet fierce border conflict with China, they threw their hat in the ring with masala chai, or better known as chai latte. The alliance also gained another member following Myanmar’s ongoing military coup, which saw them add Royal Milk Tea into the equation.

milk tea alliance
Mapping out the supporters of the alliance

Whether its general opposition to the Chinese government or just inspired by their own domestic struggles, the alliance continued to gain support across Asia. Huge numbers of supporters popped up in South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and even extended further to Australia, Belarus and Iran. Time will tell who will be the next to join.

How To Recognise the Alliance

Protestors in Thailand hold up the three-fingered salute. Photo by Milktea2020, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though it may only have started as an online movement, it immediately played a role in numerous current events. Most notably, evidence of the alliance can be seen in many of the recent protests in Asia, including the ongoing demonstrations in Myanmar and Thailand.

Protestors hold up posters that represent the alliance, often showing each members’ style of milk tea. The movement even has its own unique gesture! First used by Thai protesters in 2014, the 3-fingered salute, popularized by the movie The Hunger Games, has been used in protests throughout Asia ever since as a sign of solidarity!

Incidences

In its short yet turbulent history, the Milk Tea Alliance has evolved from an anti-Beijing meme into a pro-democracy protest pushing for change across South-East Asia. Over that time, there have been a few pinpoint incidences that have shown the alliance in action and moments that gained the movement further support.

milk tea alliance timeline

What Does the Alliance Want to Achieve?

Each country has its own personal struggle that brought them into the alliance in the first place.

In Thailand, the people are demanding fresh elections under a new constitution, and want to limit the power of the monarchy. In Hong Kong, protesters want more political freedoms and freedom of speech under an ever-encroaching China. Taiwan wants to completely avoid the influence of the CCP and wishes to maintain its independence. While Myanmar simply wishes to live in a democracy.

Protestors in Hong Kong fighting for the cause

Though each nation has its own battle, they all are linked by a common desire, freedom and democracy. Thus the alliance not only highlights their own battles, but also encourages cross-promotional support for their neighbours’ struggles. As a united force, they’re stronger than they are apart.

The alliance also brings more awareness to the tragedies and crimes that occur around the world, even extending outside of the alliance. These include highlighting the mistreatment and possible genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in Northwestern China. Thus the movement serves its purpose by giving a voice to the voiceless.

Tips and Tricks to Surviving a Revolution

Apart from raising awareness, the alliance has also had much more of a practical effect. Whether it’s battling military coups or suppressing security crackdowns from communist authorities, citizens across the world have been braving bullets, arrests and harassment in the fight for democracy. As a result, these bloodied and beaten protestors have learned a thing or two.

Protestors from different nations have been able to share valuable information on everything from how to organise a protest to understanding foreign affairs. Yet the most valuable advice of all has been how to stay safe in the face of violence!

From how to extinguish tear gas or and learning to melt away before police can counterattack, these tips have been invaluable for protestors throughout the world. These include activists in the US, Catalonia, Nigeria and Indonesia, who have all borrowed from East Asia’s protest playbook.

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Why Does the Alliance Matter?

Though the movement may have substantial support online, does this really make a difference? Much like those middle-class white liberals who pat themselves on the back for simply adding a hashtag to their tweets, is this just another case of trying to look like they’re making a difference?

It’s important to remember that this kind of movement far outweighs the ones in the West. Though the streets of the US and Europe are regularly filled with angry crowds that demand to have their voices heard, similar movements in Asia have only ever had one outcome, complete and total suppression with violence.

Protests in Hong Kong refer to Tibet, Taiwan and the Uyghurs. Photo by doctorho from Hong Kong, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This movement has provided a way for those voices to be heard in relative safety and, more importantly, avoid the violent repercussions for it. Netizens can support Thai protests without being subject to harsh lèse majesté laws that criminalize defamation of the king. The alliance can also promote Hong Kong’s struggle and attack the CCP without facing repercussions under Chinese national security law. Unfortunately for the oppressors, you’re can silence your own people, but it’s much harder to silence a continent.

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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