Who would have thought that milk tea and democracy have anything in common?

It has been a year since #MilkTeaAlliance sparked a movement among young Southeast Asians who not only love to drink milk tea but also cherish democracy.

The Milk Tea Alliance started as a Twitter hashtag. Similar to #MeToo that exposed struggled against sexism and #BlackLivesMatter that fought racism, it has drawn young people from countries including Taiwan, Myanmar, and Thailand to combat resurgent authoritarianism in the region. Members of the alliance understand that a threat to democracy anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere.

Milk tea flavors of youth resistance in the region

Like good old brewed tea mixed with new tropical fruit flavors, Taiwan’s long history of struggle versus Chinese imperialism has taken a modern form. Politicians in the country are divided into parties that oppose and support unification with China but the Taiwanese have swung toward democratic governance, handing electoral victories to pro-independence parties. The Taiwanese quest for democratization comes with progressive benchmarks such as the enactment of a universal health care system, legalization of same-sex marriages, a election of female head of state who is not a member of any political family or dynasty.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese youths have been militant in advocating for Taiwan’s independence from China, but also in promoting Taiwan’s own democracy. In the face of state violence unleashed by China during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy, students in the 1990s were at the frontlines of Taiwan’s transition from martial law to democracy in a movement called Wild Lily. Now, as China becomes more repressive, Taiwan is traversing the opposite way–a resistance in its most agile form.

One of the recent repressive policies of China is the extradition law that has provoked the biggest demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019, with around half a million protesters demanding more democracy.

Young people led the protest groups along with a broad support of their parents, small business owners, lawyers, doctors, and political pro-democracy formations in Hong Kong. Joshua Wong, 24, is one of the active political actors in the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement with his pivotal role in the Umbrella revolution of 2014 and to the eventual formation of Demosisto, a political party that advocated autonomy from China. Young people take power in these important moments defining what kind of democracies they want in their countries and in the region.

In an incident that ticked the movement’s growth, a 14-year old boy was shot because he allegedly joined the protests in Hong Kong after Carrie Lam announced a “mask ban” to quell the protests. The movement scaled up from an opposition to the extradition law to a broad movement for democracy challenging China’s Xi Jinping. Seen to be a growing sentiment around the world, pro-Hong Kong protests organized by young Hong Kongers erupted around the globe especially in major economic metro areas like New York, Berlin, Paris, London, etc. These are met with counter-protests, and often with violence, from Chinese nationalists. This shows that the flavor of pro-democracy in Hong Kong is powerful, hot, and daring.

Tweets from Chinese nationalists actually enraged a Twitter war that sprung to life the Milk Tea Alliance, after they accused a Thai actor of supporting democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence.

In Thailand’s own democratic journey, the people have protested against the removal and disqualification of elected opposition politicians and their political party Future Forward. The people’s clamor to dissolve the parliament, amend the constitution, and stop harassing critics, has gained traction since then. Their resolve is a fresh taste of how democracies should evolve from a junta and even from a monarchy.

Students itemized 10 demands in reforming the monarchy, including the abolition of a law against criticizing the king. Thousands of people joined them in the biggest demonstrations Bangkok has seen supporting calls of these young people for reforms in the monarchy and in the removal of Prayuth, who was appointed Prime Minister by the King with accusations of electoral laws being fixed in his favor effectively keeping him the post after he took over during the 2014 coup.

Following China’s authoritarian tactic, it banned the Future Forward party and to quell the protests, banned mass gatherings in an imposed state emergency against the coronavirus. But the people resisted, and just like how street vendors invented their own version of Thai milk tea, they said Thailand belonged to the people and not to the monarchy.

One year into the “regional alliance”

Twitter recently launched an emoji dedicated to the milktea alliance acknowledging the global pro-democracy movement by activists and concerned citizens that reverberated and was echoed with calls for protecting democracy all over the world.

The hashtag and alliance was re-activated with the recent happenings in Myanmar since February of this year. One year into this regional alliance, authoritarianism continues to sweep across the region. The military junta jailed Aung San Suu Kyi through a coup, sinking the nation into a new political turmoil just after a decade when it gave concessions to democratic elections.

It was met with the biggest protest demonstrations against the military since the 2007 Saffron revolution. Doctors and student groups were calling people who voted for their democracy to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Teachers and some government workers then joined the protest actions in the streets.

The Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, blocked social media channels and disrupted power to quell the protests, another authoritarian tactic learned from China which blocks Twitter and Facebook all over their country.

The milktea resistance in Myanmar is very much alive, full of color and one that gives you a fighting spirit kind of sensation–fighting for a future they want to have, much of the Gen Z protesters would say; including, Kyal Sin ‘Angel’ who was shot and killed by the junta.

Strategies and lessons for organizing

The Milk Tea Alliance exemplifies how social movements can adapt their strategies to promote their causes in a post-COVID world. This new environment has forced movements to rethink how best to gain influence given the realities of remote life. Today’s democratic groups are fusing traditional and time-tested strategies with novel technologies to meet their desired outcomes. The most crucial of these new tools are digital platforms which now serve as the locust of virtual interactions across borders. Social media functions to amplify the influence of individuals who wield a modicum of social capital. 

Digital channels have also provided effective spaces for the expedient reporting of events as they transpire. The Myanmar junta was cognizant of this threat when they immediately shut down social media applications upon taking power. The junta however has failed to stop the burgeoning of online groups, forums, and news sites that provide daily coverage over the situation.

The milk tea alliance is uniquely adapted to virtual space as a means to cultivate a broad identity that accommodates various democratic struggles. It had the ability to transform what were once domestic issues into global causes. It has given local organizations access to an arsenal of resources provided by a vibrant global activist network. The presence of regional allies provides avenues for mutual support and legitimacy between groups. At the height of the Myanmar coup, activists from Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines held their own symbolic demonstrations as a show of solidarity. Underpinning this solidarity is the idea of a common cause and shared destiny.

While the alliance is associated with now prominent youth activists, it has largely remained leaderless. There is no organized group dictating the alliance’s advocacies and positions. What unites activists under the alliance is mutual agreement over a broad set of principles rooted in a resistance to tyranny. That spontaneity has expanded the range of issues the alliance has been associated with.  The symbolism of the alliance has been superimposed in places as far as Belarus where activists in the country began to use a traditional fermented milk drink as a symbol of resistance against their authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The malleable nature of the alliance makes it much more immune to a crackdown. There is no center of operation or even a source to pinpoint the spontaneous decisions that lead to action. It is much harder to delegitimize causes originating organically in virtual space. The fact that common citizens can claim ownership of the alliance also invalidates the claims of authoritarian regimes that criticisms against them are the work of rival western nations. That sense of collective ownership gives the alliance a unique sense of vitality. Individuals can freely use the hashtag to bring attention to causes they care deeply about. 

Will the online movement translate to victory?

This alliance is a budding international solidarity front–a movement against authoritarianism against China’s imperialism, and against anti-democracy tactics. 

However, the situation across the region is dire and an online movement alone would have a hard time pressing down its gigantic enemies. For most countries, the prospect has been dark, bloody, and costly of lives especially of young people at the frontline of resistance.

Inspirations from the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements are useful references to aid on the #MilkTeaAlliance movement’s prospects on the ground.

Success will depend on whether campaigns started in virtual space translate into concrete action in domestic spaces. The legitimacy attached to the movement is simply the means to achieve more meaningful ends in addressing the concrete problems of governance. It may be claimed that rhetoric online does little to change the actual dynamics of power that lead to oppression. There may also be a tendency to minimize the campaign as a cultural fad than an actual vehicle for change. 

However, the true power of symbolic alliances lies in their ability to reframe individual experiences into collective ones. #BlackLivesMatter was effective in invalidating the assumption that systemic racism did not exist anymore – that racial violence was due to isolated incidents or a few bad apples. In the same vein, #MeToo eradicated the sense of alienation that made women feel that harassment was not widespread and that their experiences were due to their unique circumstances. The #Milktea Alliance in the same vein counters the politics of division and the force by which autocrats make exceptions in their countries. Military regimes in Myanmar and Thailand try to convince their populations that democracy does not work given their country’s circumstances. The symbolic power of #MilkTea lies in its conviction that democracy is a universal good. It is that narrative of unity which underpins the symbolism which will hopefully spark change. 

The movement has been joined by progressive young people from other countries too, including in the Philippines, East Turkistan, Tibet, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and many other joining too in the coming months.

The hope for action clearly resides in the fighting spirit of these united young people. Those who are for democracy, even with its imperfections, have a moral imperative to lend a voice, an action, a power, so the fighting spirit of young people remains to be set aflame, like how a single tweet has eventually glued together milk tea, solidarity, and democracy.