Pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance brewing in Asia

BANGKOK • As Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates voiced support for Thai anti-government protests at the weekend, they used the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.

In Bangkok, flags representing Hong Kong and independence for Taiwan appeared on a sign bearing the tag at the biggest demonstrations in years.

And in Taipei, dozens of people gathered to back the Thai protests and give weight to a nascent community of cross-border youth movements pushing for democracy at home and uneasy with China's growing power.

"This is the first physical expression of the Milk Tea Alliance," said Thai student Akrawat Siripattanachok, 27, who helped organise the show of solidarity in Taipei joined by Hong Kong activists, a Chinese dissident and Taiwan students.

"We don't want to just talk about it online. We want a pan-Asian alliance for democracy."

A hashtag that began in April as a backlash to Chinese nationalist attacks on a Thai celebrity for a perceived slight to China shows signs of turning into a bigger movement uniting like-minded activists.

Why milk tea? The light-hearted name represents a shared passion for sweet tea drinks in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"The innovative idea of Milk Tea Alliance will enhance more students to push forward global solidarity which might confront hardline crackdown," prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong told Reuters. Wong, who is facing charges for links to protests in Hong Kong last year, tweeted support for the Thai protesters.

Users on LIHKG, a social media forum used by Hong Kong demonstrators, also called on people to highlight the call of the Thai protesters for greater democracy and for the departure of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader.

"The show of solidarity between different pro-democracy groups in Asia reflects a greater intensity and camaraderie," Mr Parit "Penguin" Chiwarak, 22, one of the Thai protest leaders, told Reuters.

Help flows both ways.

Some Thai students have shown support for Hong Kong activists as Beijing tightened its grip on them, and for the Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the face of increased Chinese rhetoric over what China views as a breakaway province.

 
 
 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has dismissed the activists' cooperation.

"People who are pro-Hong Kong independence or pro-Taiwan independence often collude online, this is nothing new. Their conspiracy will never succeed," he said.

Chinese history professor Wasana Wongsurawat at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University told Reuters: "It's amazing that the Hong Kong and Taiwan bond expanded into the Milk Tea Alliance with Thailand, a sovereign country that doesn't even list Chinese as a national language."

Use of the hashtag peaked in April when some Chinese Internet users hit back against attacks on the Thai celebrities who had appeared to suggest that Hong Kong was a state and that Taiwan was not part of China.

While a few people have promoted it almost daily since then, the Thai protests saw a big increase in its use - mostly on Twitter, and also Facebook, TikTok and other platforms.

Data from a Twitter analytic tool showed the hashtag was used in more than 100,000 tweets on Sunday alone and nearly 200,000 times over the past eight days.

There have also been shows of interest from the Philippines, because of its dispute with China over the South China Sea, and India after border skirmishes with China in May.

Singaporean blogger and activist Roy Ngerng, who was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a 2014 blog post, was also in the crowd in Taipei.

"The Milk Tea Alliance became the common ground from which we can express our solidarity in humorous and safe spaces," he said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2020, with the headline 'Pro-democracy Milk Tea Alliance brewing in Asia'. Subscribe