Asia's #MilkTeaAlliance has a new target brewing - the generals behind the Myanmar coup

A Milk Tea Alliance poster by artist Sina Wittayawiroj has gone viral on social media.
PHOTO: Twitter

Asia’s meme-laden pro-democracy movement, the #MilkTeaAlliance, has welcomed a new member in Myanmar after the country’s military removed the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup.

The anti-authoritarian hashtag began as a form of solidarity for activists during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.

It quickly found sympathisers in Taiwan , then blossomed in military-dominated Thailand as young demonstrators flooded the streets last year. India has also been occasionally included in the alliance following its clashes with China over the countries’ disputed border.

Now Myanmar has joined the club of Generation Z activists taking on entrenched holders of power with the only weapon they have – social media – while using the milk tea beloved in those territories as a uniting symbol.

On Wednesday (Feb 3), photos of Myanmar hospital workers striking while flashing the three-finger salute of The Hunger Games franchise were spread widely across Thai Twitter.

The gesture has become a symbol of the kingdom’s youth-led protest movement , which is calling for reform of the government and monarchy.

Myanmar celebrities Paing Takhon and Hnin Thway Yu Aung shared defiant selfies with the salute on Instagram, while tweets with a picture of Royal Myanmar Teamix have been shared thousands of times.

So too has a poster by artist Sina Wittayawiroj depicting hands proudly holding milk tea aloft in vessels bearing the flag of Myanmar alongside those of Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan and India.

The hashtags #SaveMyanmar, #StandWithMyanmar and #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar have trended heavily in both Myanmar and Thailand.

“Social media and pop culture unite the newer generation of Southeast Asians,” said Voranai Vanijaka, political commentator and editor-in-chief of Thisrupt.com. “Human rights and democracy solidify their bond. The Milk Tea Alliance is the expression of this phenomenon, while the older generation are stuck in the values of hierarchy and nationalism.”

As the coup in Myanmar unfolded on Monday, there was also a real-world convergence of outrage in Bangkok.

Dozens of migrant workers from Myanmar gathered at their country’s embassy in the Thai capital for a peaceful rally in support of Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, which won a landslide election victory in November that the country’s military has disputed and used as a trigger for the coup.

Thai protesters marching to join them later skirmished with riot police who moved in to clear the embassy area, as the two youth-led pro-democracy causes found common cause.

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“The Thai state deployed forces to disperse the crowd who came out to protest the military coup in Myanmar at the Myanmar embassy,” Tattep “Ford” Rungprapaikitseree, one of the key leaders of Thailand’s protest movement, said in a tweet. “It shows the Thai state supports the coup … like brothers, they have the same traits.”

Myanmar’s army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, is a regular visitor to Thailand. He was close to the late Thai political kingmaker Prem Tinsulanonda and received a royal honour during a 2018 visit.

When reporters asked for his response to the coup next door, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon – an army general and a key player in the kingdom’s most recent military putsch in 2014 – swatted away the issue as “an internal matter” for Myanmar.

The Milk Tea Alliance is seen as cutting through the long-standing casual rivalry between the Mekong neighbours, allowing young people to show solidarity and outrage at the militaries that refuse to allow democracy to take root and command outsize influence over their economies.

There is also a shared experience of repression – Thailand has been through 13 coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932, while Myanmar was ruled by the junta from 1962 to 2011.

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Violence has crushed past pro-democracy street movements in both countries, while figureheads such as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit who challenge the army are routinely plucked from the political chessboard under spurious charges.

On Wednesday it appeared to be Suu Kyi’s turn, as police charged her with breaching import-export laws after finding walkie-talkies in her house in Naypyidaw. Analysts said the allegations could see her banned from politics.

The country’s generals have also apparently caught up with the mushrooming online rebellion. Facebook confirmed its service has been disrupted inside Myanmar, while there have been reports of interruptions to the internet and other social media across the country.

“The older generation has the guns and controls the law,” commentator Voranai said. “The newer generation is at a disadvantage, their weapon is an idea, but nonetheless they have time on their side.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.