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The language, the demands and the backdrop were different, but the protests across central Bangkok last week would have looked familiar to anyone who followed the mass demonstrations that roiled Hong Kong for a year from June 2019.
Crowds of young protesters, dressed in black and wearing hard hats, poured through the streets to locations announced at the last minute on social media. As the police closed in and the protesters prepared for confrontation, hand gestures and human chains ensured supplies including protective masks and water reached the front lines.
Tactics adopted from Hong Kong demonstrations have helped the movement survive both the jailing of most of its leaders and direct attempts by the prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to ban the demonstrations.
But Hong Kong has not only provided inspiration in Bangkok. In recent months an unexpected solidarity has developed between young protesters and activists across Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, at first online but increasingly now in protests on the streets, in law courts and in the corridors of power.
Their fights are serious ones, against governments with a ruthless track record of crushing dissent. But the symbol of east Asia’s informal coalition is playful, a simple beverage enjoyed in all three places, leading protesters to dub their unlikely cross-border support the “Milk Tea Alliance”.
Milk tea is drunk differently in each place, just as their individual battles vary. Cold with tapioca bubbles in Taiwan, hot and strong in Hong Kong, iced and sweetened with condensed milk in Thailand. But the basic ingredients are the same, just as the protesters’ basic aim – democracy – is shared.
“When you have to go against a big power you have to be creative,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a prominent student activist in Bangkok. “The name is very cute – it’s appealing and people [see] it’s not aggressive.”
Protest art posted online shows three teas raised together in a toast. Other images depict the drinks as sweet cartoon figures holding hands in solidarity, with love hearts floating above.
Alliance supporters are keen not to overstate what the different members can do for each other, or minimise the differences between their struggles. Thai students are battling a powerful monarchy, demanding greater democracy and accountability. In Hong Kong, protesters are fighting the Beijing-backed government for rights and freedoms they were promised during the handover from British colonial rule. They were abruptly curtailed this year by a draconian national security law imposed from the mainland. And in Taiwan politicians and activists are engaged in an existential struggle with China, which considers the self-ruled island part of its territory and has not ruled out using force to bring it under Beijing’s control.
But supporters of the unlikely coalition say protesters and politicians across the disparate milk-tea territories share practical challenges, ideological values, and increasing concern about the power of China – a key ally of Bangkok’s military-backed government.
Thai protesters inspired by the Hong Kong movement see direct parallels between their own political experiences and that of activists opposing China’s authoritarianism, said Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, assistant professor of political science at Thammasat University.
“When you look at Hong Kong as a Thai citizen, what you see is a repetition of another autocratic rule – repression, doublespeak, lies and propaganda, disinformation and abuse of power,” said Janjira.
More than 80 protesters in Thailand have now been arrested after taking part in protests, and key leaders remain in detention. Three were charged under an obscure law banning “violence against the queen” after her motorcade was heckled, and could face a death sentence if her life is thought to have been in danger.
Some Thai protesters see not only a shared goal of democracy but a shared enemy in Beijing, including Thachaporn Supparatanapinyo, a Thai student activist living in Taiwan, who describes the alliance as a “perfect example” of a regional movement.
“For the CCP [Chinese Communist party], there will always be the next and the next,” she said. “If not territorial expansion then they will seek to commodify our sovereignty by buying off (Thai) leaders like they have already done in Cambodia and Laos.”
Jerry Liu, director of international affairs for Taiwan’s New Power party, which grew out of the student-led Sunflower protest movement of 2014, admits that for many in Taiwan the Milk Tea Alliance is just a “vague and fancy slogan”.
But the island’s own relatively recent history of democratisation and its perpetual fight to preserve self-rule should make pro-democracy activists elsewhere natural allies, he says.
“If we think about this issue from the perspective of human rights, liberty and democracy, then we should find many things in common,” he said at a press conference organised by the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy – a practical incarnation of the alliance.
The origin of this modern alliance of young pro-democracy activists is almost as unlikely as its symbol. It began in the spring after a Thai celebrity and his girlfriend shared pictures on their social media accounts that – apparently unintentionally – could be read as backing independence for Hong Kong and Taiwan.
China’s army of hyper-vigilant nationalist trolls responded by attacking Thailand, trying to dent nationalist pride with slurs on the monarchy and economy, but they misjudged their target. Thai Twitter users are known for their outspoken criticism of their country’s establishment, and the attacks came after months of anti-government protests.
Rather than being offended, many embraced the attacks, and deflected them back with sarcasm and dark humour in an escalating online battle that gradually drew in peers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A volley of memes ricocheted around the internet, but an “alliance” that began as a joke also began to take real form on the ground. A protester facing charges in Hong Kong flashed a Thai protest symbol to a packed courtroom this summer.
Thai students looked to the experienced, effective Hong Kong organisers for examples of how to more effectively defy and protest against their government, copying graphics and advice about staying safe at protests and keeping digital data private.
“Online users in Asia are realising there is strength in numbers and in the shared experiences of resisting and fighting back against authoritarian governments,” said Tracy Beattie, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who has closely followed online political activism in Thailand.
In Taiwan, the milk tea hashtag even popped up on the vice-president’s Twitter feed on National Day, 10 October, although a government spokesman had previously claimed Taipei took “no position” on the alliance.
Over the past six months, online activists aligned with the group helped drive a boycott of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, drawing attention to human rights abuses by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang, where some filming took place, and to the lead actor’s controversial support for police in Hong Kong.
It has also been used to share anything from reports of China’s exploitation of the Mekong, a river relied upon by tens of millions of people, to petitions calling for states to stand up to China over its persecution of Uighur Muslims.
Sitthiphon Kruarattikan, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies, at Thammasat University, said that although there is no expectation of the alliance driving political change, it reflects and amplifies growing concern about Beijing’s political agenda and its regional projection of power.
“China is still unsuccessful in cultivating soft power or winning hearts and minds of their ‘Taiwanese compatriots’ and people in neighbouring countries,” he added.