In Asia, a new movement for democracy has been gaining strength – but how can it enact change on the ground when it comes to corruption and authoritarianism?

On 16 December 1773, protestors in Boston, Massachusetts dumped chests of tea into the harbour to protest against sweeping new laws imposed by the government in London. Their actions led to what eventually became the American Revolution, ending British rule in the United States for good. Nearly 250 years later, the humble cup of tea is once again being claimed as a symbol of unity in the face of oppression.

In Thailand, it’s called Cha Nom Yen. It’s drunk cold and it’s sweetened with bright red sala syrup. In the teashops of Myanmar, people drink super sweet tea thickened with condensed milk, not dissimilar to the Hong Kong Silk Stocking Tea. And the Taiwanese Boba tea, which has in recent years found its way onto British high streets, is made cold with balls of thick tapioca pearls sucked up through wide plastic straws and chewed alongside drinking the beverage.

Masala Chai in India, Teh Tarik in Malaysia, and Sut Chai in China’s Xinjiang. Across Asia, you can find a variation of this kind of milky tea in most cafes and on street corners. But two years ago, an online spat between a Thai celebrity and Chinese nationalists over the sovereignty of Taiwan birthed a new internet-based political movement united by a shared love of tea and freedom.

Dubbed the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’, this loose union of predominantly young social media users now spans multiple countries across Asia.

For Eden, an artist originally from Hong Kong who moderates an Alliance discussion forum via the encrypted messaging service Telegram, the movement aims to spread the message worldwide about the crimes of dictatorships and corrupt governments. He says that, during critical periods, the Alliance ensures news is “spread like wildfire, providing a channel for activists and world politicians to communicate through”.

Despite the threat of domestic authoritarianism in their own countries, antagonism towards the Chinese Communist Party in particular is a unifying thread in the Milk Tea Alliance. The name itself is in defiance of China, where tea is typically drunk without milk.

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During the recent visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an enraged government in Beijing conducted several days of military exercises designed to cow Taipei and intimidate the West. Sensing an opportunity, members of the Alliance shared satirical maps on Twitter describing China as “West Taiwan” or “North Hong Kong”, alongside doctored images of Chinese President Xi Jinping as the children’s character Winnie the Pooh, a likeness the premier is rumoured to loathe.

In the two years since it formed, the Alliance has spread its reach throughout Asia.

Garet-Krittapas Ched, president of the political science student union of Chulalongkorn University and executive editor of the pro-democracy publishing House Samyan Press in Thailand, says that the Alliance is a “community where people feel harmony when fighting against authoritarian regimes” and that the network helps like-minded groups to share tactics.

But the Alliance has drawn criticism from some quarters, with detractors saying that internet-based activism can be difficult to translate into real-world action.

Austin Wang, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Nevada, analysed online trends associated with the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance for a blog on his university’s webpage. 

Wang found that, during the violent uprisings in Thailand and Myanmar last July, #MilkTeaAlliance seemed to lose its spell, drawing on support predominantly from Western democracies such as the United States and the UK rather than its founders within Thailand or Hong Kong.

Thai academic Wichuta Teeratanabodee, a senior analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has researched the social reach of the Alliance. She disagrees with Wang and says that describing the movement as just a hashtag or trend minimises its value for outreach.

“Instead of seeing a movement as just a group of people calling for something, I think we should see it within a broader context,” she says. “You’re trying to gain supporters, and you’re trying to educate people. Of course it is a hashtag, but when that hashtag trends online others can read and see what is happening and what the protestors are talking about. It is a kind of pedagogical arena for people to learn about different issues in different countries.”

Indeed, Wang admits that attention from the West is no bad thing. He says “timely support from the established democracies provides for a complementary role” in mobilising support within Asia.

Teeratanabodee agrees: “There was a time when Western brands came out and banned goods that were produced in [the Xinjiang region of China where the Uyghur minority is persecuted], so we can look at civil society and see how much the West can have an impact through consumerism.”

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It is clear that for some members of the Alliance, online activism is not enough.

Last month, the military junta in control of Myanmar executed four pro-democracy spokespeople. In response, and to mark the anniversary of the notorious 8888 uprisings in the country, protestors covertly took to the streets carrying umbrellas – a symbol of the pro-democracy movement originating in Hong Kong. Photos of the activists circulated on social media this month, with tweets accompanied by #MilkTeaAlliance. 

In a speech expressing his sympathy with protestors in Myanmar, Hong Kong protest leader Nathan Law reaffirmed the principles of cross-border solidarity that the Alliance represents.

“As an individual, I cannot do much to help the people suffering in Burma, but at least I can guarantee that Hong Kong people, the population in Milk Tea Alliance, and the people supporting democracy around the world are standing with you,” he has said. “You are not alone.” 

For Ched, the fight for freedom can’t be won solely through social media because “online words are not enough to make change” but believes the Alliance “has raised people’s awareness, as we have seen more Taiwan Independent flags and Hong Kong flags flown during some protests in Thailand” and it has “also led to some protests of symbolic action in front of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok”.

“Perhaps in the future people will be more aware and join the demonstrations in front of embassies or government buildings,” Ched says.

Can the Milk Tea Alliance transform its activism from the realm of hashtags and memes into real-world action? “We will have to see,” says Teeratanabodee, “we are all looking forward to seeing how that’s going to happen.”

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