What started out as a popular internet meme showing solidarity among Southeast Asian netizens has turned into a dynamic protest movement involving activists from Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan.
The amorphous, pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance is named after a shared love of the popular tea drink in each place—Hong Kong has milk tea, Thailand has Thai iced tea and bubble tea is popular in Taiwan.
The Milk Tea Alliance first took shape in April after a celebrity couple from Thailand was accused by mainland Chinese social media users of expressing support for Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence. The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance began trending on Thai Twitter, and a fierce digital battle ensued between Thai netizens and the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, which decried online criticism of Beijing in a lengthy Facebook statement.
According to Reuters, showing support for Hong Kong and Taiwan in their fight against Chinese encroachment has unified Thai pro-democracy protesters as their homegrown movement against authoritarianism is gaining traction.
“Anti-Beijing sentiment has become a part of Thais’ fight against authoritarianism,” Wasana Wongsurawat, an expert on China at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters in April.
In recent months, the Milk Tea Alliance has seen a resurgence, moving beyond an anti-Beijing meme to a leaderless protest movement pushing for change across Southeast Asia.
On Sunday, August 16, thousands of young protesters took to the streets of Bangkok in the largest anti-government demonstration Thailand has seen since 2014. Local protesters drew support from their Milk Tea allies, including leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, who tweeted out in solidarity.
“This is a new generation of young Thais who are brave, extremely politically aware and unafraid of voicing their demands,” Roger Huang, a politics lecturer from Sydney’s Macquarie University, told VICE News.
“Instead of staying silent, they took things a step further by mobilizing together and calling on the current military junta government to step down and return power to the people—these are narratives that fellow pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and Taiwan can relate to and appreciate.”
In Hong Kong, which is seeing its own freedoms dissolve under a controversial new national security law imposed by Beijing, prominent pro-democracy leaders have openly voiced support for their Thai counterparts—like Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was plucked from a protest in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June, and Parit Chiwarak, who was arrested on sedition charges but has since been released on bail.
“Force and fear won’t kill our spirits of resistance and can never take away our future and imprison our souls,” Wong, who was once denied entry into Bangkok at Beijing’s request, said in a series of tweets on Saturday, August 15. “As the situation in Thailand turns critical, I hope all freedom-loving people can stand with Thailand.”
Support for the Thai protest movement continued in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei on Sunday, as dozens gathered in solidarity. Among them was Roy Ngerng, a human rights activist from Singapore and a self-proclaimed member of the Milk Tea Alliance, who spoke at Sunday’s event in Taipei.
Ngerng told VICE News that protest movements across Asia have shared goals and similar methods.
“Hong Kong, Thai and Taiwanese protesters are brave in fighting for democracy in the face of tyrannical regimes,” Ngerng said. “They are taking massive risks by speaking out and resisting.”
“I wanted to show my support for these democracy movements and I hope that what’s happening in Thailand and Hong Kong will help to inspire change and bring about true democracy in Asia,” he added.
Milk Tea Alliance memes have been widely shared across social media in response to Thailand’s latest wave of unrest.
Experts say the renewed solidarity between the different protest groups demonstrates how online activism can translate into real-world action.
Political analyst Bridget Welsh, a research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, told VICE News: “Few appreciate how social media penetrates these three Asian places in particular, especially among voters and protesters.”
“Young protesters adopt similar mediums and openly engage with each other, virtual activist communities are borderless,” she added. “We’ve seen this in the 2014 Sunflower and Umbrella movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong and now we are seeing similar action in Thailand.”
Huang said that transnational solidarity “isn’t anything new” between protesters in Hong Kong and Taiwan, “who have faced the same challenges of censorship and policing from the mainland for years.”
“These pro-democracy, youth-led movements draw parallels with each other and inspire one another,” he added.
“The student protesters in Thailand are clearly learning from their counterparts in Hong Kong and Thailand.”