Milk Tea Alliance 2021
A new Milk Tea Alliance? Image: Owi Liunic

The Signs and Symbols of Asia’s New Democracy Movement

As Southeast Asian countries sink further into authoritarianism, young people are fighting back with coded language.
February 10, 2021, 10:02am

#WhatsHappening hashtags, “wrong generation” memes, and three-fingered salutes: pro-democracy protesters across Asia have created an online-friendly arsenal of slogans and symbols that transcend national borders.

Myanmar’s anti-coup uprising is the latest staging ground for an anti-authoritarian movement informally referred to as the Milk Tea Alliance in a nod to the sugary beverage enjoyed in major Asian cities, from Taipei to Hong Kong and Bangkok.

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What glues it all together are the sometimes subtle, sometimes clear vocabulary and messaging shared by protesters, who are mostly young and completely at-home on social media.

Roger Huang, a politics lecturer from Sydney’s Macquarie University, called the shareable messaging an “imagined digital political community” that is largely symbolic in its opposition to repressive regimes but has the potential to translate online action to real-world change.

VICE World News breaks down some of the more prominent features of this new visual language.

#WhatsHappeningIn…

Twitter has become the go-to platform for protesters to mobilize, especially in Myanmar, which early on restricted access to Facebook, only sending everyone to Twitter. The use of VPNs has helped protesters in Myanmar get around various restrictions on social media.

#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar is a common hashtag, borrowed from the #WhatsHappeninginThailand version that helped fuel protests in Bangkok last year. It has routinely trended on the platform in Myanmar since the coup started on Feb. 1.

The hashtag #FightforDemocracy has also emerged as a common coupling with tweets.

Three-Finger Salute

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Image: Owi Liunic

First used by Thais during a 2014 anti-coup movement, the three-finger salute was inspired by the book series turned movie trilogy “The Hunger Games” and has become an iconic symbol of resistance against tyranny and dictatorship. 

It resurfaced in Thailand during 2020 youth-led pro-democracy protests that directly challenged not only the military-led government but also the powerful monarchy. It has been seen on streets, T-shirts and social media.

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Myanmar quickly adopted the symbol in the early days of the anti-coup demonstrations after leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by soldiers. Doctors kicked off the salute, but it was quickly picked up by just about everybody taking part in protests. In the local context the three-fingered gesture also has deeper meaning for many.

“We have three demands and we call it ‘Su Yway Hlout’ in Burmese,” protester Wai Yan told VICE World News.

 “‘Su’ means the call to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the civilian leaders, ‘Yway’ means to accept the result of the general elections, and ‘Hlout’ means to open the parliament to officially announce the new government.”

Pots and Pans

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Image: Owi Liunic

It’s been said that democracy is noisy. This is true in Myanmar, where ordinary residents bang pots and pans nightly to oppose the junta. The act is meant to “drive the devils” out and has now been picked up in Thailand, where protesters have offered a similarly loud barrage of solidarity.

Supporters of the nationwide uprising in Myanmar have also taken to social media to make their own ruckus. On Wednesday, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, who was East Timor’s president, clanged a pan to express his support for Myanmar, expressing concerns about a potential crackdown.

“The world is watching,” he said in a video. “Democracy in Myanmar must be restored immediately.”

Wrong Generation 

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Image: Owi Liunic

“You fucked with the wrong generation” has become a rallying cry of millennials and Gen Z protesters in Thailand, Hong Kong and now Myanmar. The slogan has been printed on posters and shirts and seen at demonstrations across Asia.

Young people are at the forefront of Asia’s new pro-democracy fight. The “wrong generation” slogan reflects a generational gap between those calling for more freedoms and aging, largely male leaders who hold power by force.

Rubber Ducks and Umbrellas

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Image: Owi Liunic​

Thai protesters have used oversized rubber ducks as a protest symbol. The well-loved yellow ducks, which typically float on water, were commissioned to “protect” young protesters against water cannons used by the Thai police to disperse the protesters.

One activist previously told VICE World News the rubber ducks symbolize their persistence to reach the government even through water.

While they have yet to extend beyond Thailand, the use of umbrellas is popular in Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and increasingly in Myanmar.

Protesters block water cannons with a plank of umbrellas, which are plentiful in many Asian countries with seasonal monsoon rains.