Milk Tea with a Side of Democracy: How Memes are Brewing a Political Movement
Mary Grace Nimmer
In April, offended Chinese citizens took to twitter to attack Thai celebrities whose tweets implied that Hong Kong and Taiwan were independent of China. Thai youth quickly defended the celebrities. Met with insults from Chinese citizens, who targeted topics such as the corruption of the Thai government, Thai youth responded with humor and memes. Moreover, they did not take offense to the Chinese’ accusations against the Thai government — they agreed with them. What the Chinese thought would insult the Thai people were the most popular progressive talking points of the Thai anti-government movement; the Thais joined in on the mockery.
The back and forth tweets quickly evolved into a larger debate over Thai democracy and China’s influence in the region and grew to include activists from both Hong Kong and Taiwan. #MilkTeaAlliance is a lighthearted name and popular hashtag for the movement, inspired by Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong’s shared affinity for milk tea, which is not a traditional beverage in China. Born out of a twitter war between Chinese and Thai netizens, the popular #MilkTeaAlliance evolved from a cute twitter hashtag to an online geopolitical pro-democracy movement.
Thailand’s history of authoritarianism is a long and complicated one, beginning in 1932 and continuing today. In March 2019, Thailand held its first elections since the military seized power in 2014 after it overthrew the democratically elected government. In 2019, Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military junta leader who led the 2014 coup, was elected as the prime minister, leaving many Thai citizens angry and questioning the validity of the election results. Rumors of rigged elections, discontent with the government, and a lack of leadership led to widespread protests.
In July, protests in Thailand resumed, with activists breaking Thailand’s COVID-19 quarantine orders, a crime which is punishable by two years in prison. Adding to the intensity of the movement are the activists’ criticisms of the Thai monarchy. In Thailand, it is illegal to openly discuss the monarchy, much less critique it. The current king, King Vajiralongkorn, lives in Germany during most of the year, and protestors are angry at his apathy towards Thailand’s economic and social crises.
The protestors have three key demands for the Thai government: dissolve the parliament, write a new democratic constitution, and end the attacks on government critics. Activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which have long histories of fighting for autonomy from China, immediately rallied for the Thai movement. The support goes both ways; in Bangkok, protests against the Thai government also feature signs advocating for Taiwan and Hong Kong’s independence.
In Taiwan, protests and rallies have been held in support of Hong Kong and Thailand’s movements. One such rally, organized by the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy, was held in Taipei on August 16. At the rally, activists discussed Thailand’s history of authoritarianism and the issue of Thailand’s exiled political dissidents. The rally’s description referenced #MilkTeaAlliance, showing the online movement’s shift to real-life political activism.
Support for the Milk Tea Alliance has spread throughout Asia. Milk Tea Alliance supporters in the Philippines created an official twitter account to show their encouragement for the movement; the Philippines and China have had ongoing disputes over territories in the South China Sea, severely damaging China’s reputation in the Philippines, especially among Filipino youth. Indian supporters have also joined the Milk Tea Alliance, following months of clashes at the China-India border. In addition, citizens from countries along the Mekong river, including Cambodia and Vietnam, have shown interest in the movement in protest of China’s use of upstream dams in the Mekong region.
The Milk Tea Alliance began as a lighthearted hashtag, evolved into an online geopolitical movement, and has now unfolded into real-world activism. By using humor, the online Alliance provides a safe space for solidarity; in the real world, the Alliance provides a platform for resistance and leverage on many important issues. Although each sector of the Alliance has its own goals, the opposition for each is the same: authoritarianism. Online and in the real world, the Milk Tea Alliance has emerged as a significant political force.