The Milk Tea Alliance: one year in, where is it now?

The Milk Tea Alliance celebrated its first anniversary on April 7. But with democracy movements across the region facing setbacks, where does the Alliance stand today? What are its possible futures? 

When Twitter Public Policy launched the tri-colored #MilkTeaAlliance emoji, it was a watershed moment of recognition for something previously dismissed as a fad. The Milk Tea Alliance (MTA) started out as a winsome slogan born of a Pan-Asian meme war, and appears to have grown exponentially since then. The scope of its activism has expanded beyond anti-China activity to encompass expressly anti-authoritarian movements. It admitted new members like Myanmar, the Philippines and West Papua. Most importantly, it seamlessly moved beyond social media and found a regular home in street protests from Hong Kong to Bangkok to Yangon. 

However, central Milk Tea Alliance members have faced recent setbacks in their democracy movements. In Hong Kong, the National Security Law presaged what critics called “the end of Hong Kong,” and a series of mass arrests this January seemed to signal as much. In Thailand, the government launched a legal offensive that has seen over 87 individualscharged with the controversial lese majesté law, according to TLHR. In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has intensified its bloody military crackdown against pro-democracy protestors. According to UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, over 737 people have been killed as of April 20, with nearly 250,000 displaced. 

Yet, thousands of Milk Tea Alliance tweets are still generated each day, mostly by Myanmar netizens trying to raise awareness on #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar. A number of Milk Tea Alliance accounts associated with other ASEAN members have banded to condemn their respective leaders for recognizing coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s regime in various forums. At its one-year anniversary mark, the Alliance seems under more pressure, but stronger than ever. 

The Thai Enquirer spoke to four activists who associate their work closely with the #MilkTeaAlliance, from Myanmar, the Philippines and Hong Kong. In a region where authoritarianism and Chinese dominance seem to be closing in, is there still a future for the Milk Tea Alliance?

Protesters chant slogans and gesture during a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China. – Hong Kong police arrested more than 300 people on July 1 — including nine under China’s new national security law — as thousands defied a ban on protests on the anniversary of the city’s handover to China. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

What Is the Milk Tea Alliance?

Part of the allure of the Milk Tea Alliance is its inclusivity. It has redefined Asia’s regions, forging solidarity across East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The Alliance defies the concept of region itself – the word stems from the Latin verb ‘regere’ meaning ‘to rule’ or ‘to command,’ but Alliance centers itself around defiance and opposition to command.  

But it is equally difficult to understand, mostly because of its malleable nature. In these radically different contexts, the Alliance takes on a variety of forms that serve a variety of actors. 

Gino, one of the administrators of @mta_PH (Milk Tea Alliance Philippines), describes the Philippine arm of the Alliance as “a loose group of people” who banded together to create a working organization. He hails from Visayas, but other members are from bigger cities like Manila. They work as administrators of a Facebook group of around 400 people, while regularly creating and amplifying content for their Twitter base. Yet, there is very little that is official or centralized about their organization. “That’s the beauty,” he reflects, “it all happened so organically.” 

Badiucao, an Australia-based artist from Hong Kong who creates Milk Tea Alliance-focused protest art, has an even looser perception of what the Alliance is. 

“The Milk Tea Alliance is a slogan. It’s not really an organization, it doesn’t have a body – it arises sometimes because of situations where we have the same enemy, but more importantly, because we seek the same thing: to make our societies democratic.” Badiucao’s perspective is echoed by the administrator of Twitter account @AllianceMilkTea, who similarly sees the beauty of the Alliance in its “decentralized, organic nature.”

Yet, both Gino and Myanmar-based activist Khin Sandar link the Alliance to prior connections among the Asian activist community. Khin Sandar was arrested in 2018 for organizing a protest to release Internally Displaced Peoples in Karen state, and supported the Hong Kong umbrella movement before the Alliance was given a name or hashtag. Her involvement in pro-democracy activist brought her in touch with friends in Bangkok through workshops and webinars. 

“We were always working with people who were holding hands together for democracy, whether it’s in your country or for a regional issue,” acknowledges Khin Sandar. 

Students and activists listen to Hong Kong democracy campaigner Joshua Wong, who was detained by Thai authorites upon arrival in Bangkok on the night of October 4 and deported back to Hong Kong on October 5, speaking over an internet video call at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on October 6, 2016. – Wong was scheduled to speak at an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of a massacre of pro-democracy students by Thai security forces and royalist militias at Chulalongkorn University, but was detained by Thai authorites October and deported back to Hong Kong as he and his supporters blamed China for his detention. (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

What are we now in the Milk Tea Alliance’s lifecycle? 

Yet, there is something qualitatively different about the Alliance now versus when it was first formed. Where it once was a key venue for anti-China activism, the focus has since shifted to Myanmar. 

“The Milk Tea Alliance has gained momentum as Myanmar was added as a member…there is sort of this urgency to stand together for Myanmar,” observes @AllianceMilkTea. “Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia have carried out physical protests demanding their leaders not support the regime.”

Khin Sandar has built strong connections throughout Myanmar’s ‘Spring Revolution,’ especially with anti-China activists who offer solidarity in the form of the three finger salutes. “We are not alone, we are together,” Khin Sandar asserts. 

But where optimistic academics like Clay Shirky once saw internet movements as possible stand-ins for offline activity, many agree that the Alliance’s popularity is closely correlated with street protest activity, and wanes with increasing crackdowns. 

“MTA reached its peak hype in Thailand around October last year, and in Hong Kong around October and November as well, but as the protests started happening and the protests sort of stopped, users have been less active,” Gino notes. He points to the Philippines’ own militaristic COVID-19 lockdown, labeled by Time Magazine as “one of the world’s longest lockdowns,” and President Rodrigo Duterte’s increased ‘red tagging’ (malicious blacklisting) as an example of government efforts to combat activist activity. This has prompted activists to seek alternative – often quieter – avenues of protest. Community pantries are one such avenue, as the public step in to help one another amidst the government’s lackluster COVID-19 response. 

In Myanmar, Khin Sandar reports similar crackdowns and decreases in protest movements on the ground. “Police are searching in every house for organizers and leaders of protests,” she reveals. A small flash mob in Yangon she observed that day led to three arrests on the spot. 

“It seems like we’re hitting walls everywhere, and the situation in different countries is quite different, but it seems like the force for those authoritarian regimes is coming back,” Badiucao bleakly reflects. “This is kind of expected, when one of the biggest economies in the world, China, is exploiting the situation and exporting its authoritarian system to other governments in town.” 

Participants gesture a three-finger salute at the start of a “run against dictatorship” in Bangkok on January 12, 2020. – Around ten thousand Thais joined a “run against dictatorship” on Sunday, shouting anti-army slogans and wielding three-finger salutes from the Hunger Games films in the largest show of political defiance since the 2014 coup. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

Milk Tea Alliance Futures 

Despite surmounting challenges against the various protest movements in Thailand, Hong Kong, Myanmar and elsewhere, there is still immense hope among Milk Tea Alliance activists. For them, there is one thing the military cannot outlast: the resilience and political conscience of a generation that has grown up knowing some sense of freedom.

“Across countries and regions, we’ve heard a similar slogan: you are messing with the wrong generation,” Badiucao observes. “Myanmar has experienced democracy in recent years, which isn’t something an entirely new generation will easily give up – same with Hong Kong, and Thailand.”

“The power is not just with troops, tanks or guns, but in how the younger generation views the world.”

Through YouTube, Myanmar’s protestors have learned how to make homemade weapons with which to fight the military’s grenades and machine guns. Through Twitter, Thai protestors learned what to wear to combat the water guns and tear gas Hong Kong protestors faced. Through Facebook, livestreams continue to record the wrongdoings of various authoritarian governments. Even beyond social media, youngsters have coined catch phrases for their various forms of resistance – in Thailand, kaeng te po, the name of a popular curry dish, was used as a codeword for tricking the police. 

“It’s the 21st century and most young Asian people want freedom and democracy and justice, so the Milk Tea Alliance will survive,” Khin Sandar declares matter-of-factly. “Our decision is very clear: either we die, or the military is removed. This is our last chance, and it is their last chance too.”

The space-time compression of social media has made these spontaneous connections possible, but it is the drive and grit of a new generation of protestors that will ultimately sustain it. The solidarity that has been released can never be locked up again, even as many are temporarily driven behind bars.

“I don’t think any authoritarian regime is sustainable, because the system is ineffective and inhumane,” Badiucao concludes. “Change is inevitable.”

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