Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
[Editor: Engage! continues to cover the emerging movement for democracy in Southeast Asia. The #MilkTeaAlliance is getting almost no coverage in Western media even though it is possibly the largest pro-democracy movement in modern history. Neither is it being covered in the Buddhist press, even though many of the countries involved have large and even majority Buddhist populations. Every once in a while some folks show up at protests in orange robes and then the photos appear in Buddhist magazines. But there’s no discussion about how this anti-authoritarian movement could impact Buddhism in Asia and the globe. So I will continue to post interviews and some news articles because for sure, you aren’t going to get this anywhere else.]
Twitter recently unveiled an official emoji for the pro-democracy online movement in Asia known commonly by the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance. This marks a year since the hashtag started bringing together activists from all over Asia in defiance of a growing wave of authoritarianism and autocratization. Most notably in 2020, #MilkTeaAlliance represented a push for solidarity among protesters from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar, and has since expanded to include other causes in the region that share the same fundamental goal of fighting for democracy and human rights.
While Taiwan is included in all iterations of the Milk Tea Alliance, the struggles against authoritarianism has particular contexts in each country. How does Taiwan fit in the Milk Tea Alliance, and what role can we play? I interviewed Thachaporn Supparatanapinyo and Adam K. Dedman, spokesperson and advisor for the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy (台灣推動泰國民主聯盟) respectively, to learn more about what their group does in Taiwan, and how an online hashtag can support democracy movements.
KM: How did you or your organization get started on the activist work that you do?
Adam: Since 1932, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy on paper, and there were several attempts to democratize (1940s, 1970s, 1990s, early 2000s) that were all ultimately unsuccessful because of military intervention. Thailand has experienced more military putsches than any country and all coup d’etats in Thailand have to be blessed by the monarch. What’s going on right now with the pro-democracy movement has roots in what happened earlier in Thai history, because they’re all connected.
In March 2019, the military junta organized a sham election (based on rules written in their favor) in which the military-backed party won, of course. But what happened a year ago in February 2020 was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. The founder of the Future Forward Party, which is an opposition party that had the support of a lot of young and pro-democracy minded people, was dubiously dissolved due to a loan from the founder, which was ruled by the constitutional court of Thailand as illegal. This is what we call a “silent coup” or “law fare,” and Duncan McCargo has written in depth about how this works in Thailand. This was the catalyst for protests last year. Protests died down due to COVID but re-emerged in July 2020.
In early August 2020, two Thai graduate students from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University posted on Facebook that they wanted to gather in front of the de facto Thai Embassy in Taipei and protest in solidarity with the demonstrations back in Thailand. It was very last minute, quickly organized, but word just kind of spread, and about 35 people showed up, mostly Thais but a few Taiwanese as well.
On August 10th, some of us got together, had dinner, talked about what to do, and just decided to create a Facebook page to organize future events—an informal group we dubbed the Taiwan Alliance for Thai Democracy. And that’s kind of how TATD got started; it’s not formally set up as an NGO or an association, it’s just an informal alliance of Thai students, foreign allies, Taiwanese students who care about the issue, and basically from August until October last year, TATD held multiple protests around Taipei.
Thachaporn: A lot of things he said about Thai history I didn’t know before; in Thai schools we don’t learn about this kind of thing. We are taught that political intervention by the king is a blessed thing and we should accept it – that he’s some sort of democratic god that helps Thai people and stops people from dying. It’s just that many people in Thailand, if you talk to them, it’s normal that they don’t know this kind of thing.
So like the protest that happened, it’s only for the people who know a kind of alternative narrative that’s not really from the government. I just learned this when I entered university only five years ago. Now TATD organizes protests to support the Thai movement, and at the same time we want to support every kind of pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in the region.
KM: Can you share what the Milk Tea Alliance means to you?
Adam: The Milk Tea Alliance was an explosion on Twitter last year, following a controversy surrounding a Thai ‘Boys’ Love’ (BL) actor Bright and his girlfriend Nnevvy who was accused by Chinese nationalist trolls of expressing pro-Hong Kong and pro-Taiwan sentiments. What this event really highlighted was that these “Little Pinks” (online trolls supporting the Chinese regime) were not only trying to suppress freedom of speech in their own country, but also in other countries as well.
The Milk Tea Alliance is a kind of mindset – it just gives a name to sentiments that already existed, but weren’t articulated clearly. The fight for democracy, for self determination, against dictatorship and the growing autocratization of Asia – these were not new issues in 2020, but I think what the Milk Tea Alliance did was, through the power of a hashtag, through the power of being able to find like-minded voices online, provide a platform for these kinds of messages to go viral.
And of course, the Thai protests, to some extent, are piggybacking off of the Hong Kong protests of the year before, and so there was already synergy, some kind of feeling between Thai and Hong Kong students: “okay, we need to learn from each other, we really should think about this not just as a domestic Thai issue, but as a regional issue.” How do you bring more people to be interested in the movement? You have to have a broader narrative than just the Thai context.
Thachaporn: Especially since milk tea is kind of part of daily life in Taiwan, and in Thailand as well, and I think this kind of hashtag brings these political issues closer to the people, closer to our daily life.
KM: How has the Taiwanese public responded to your message? And following up from that, what do you hope the Taiwanese public and government can do to help your cause?
Thachaporn: I think at the beginning, Taiwanese people w`ould ask me – they don’t really know about Thai politics, they only know about Hong Kong, so we had to build the bridge and say, okay, this is not only about Thai domestic political issues, but it’s a regional issue. The hashtag and the movement allow people to learn about each other, about history, about what we have been struggling through. In Thailand it’s so difficult to organize this kind of movement and remain safe, but in Taiwan we have this kind of space where we can talk, we can express ourselves. We want to raise our voices within this safe space and security and freedom of speech that we can exercise in Taiwan’s democratic space.
Adam: TATD and Thai students realize the geopolitical constraints that the Taiwanese government operates under, of course. It’s very difficult in a way, because Taiwan is a beacon of democracy, but how much it can export that kind of value to autocratic regimes is difficult, when it has to tiptoe around Chinese pressure in all these countries. I don’t think any Thai students expect the Taiwanese government to intervene overtly, but to offer a democratic space within Taiwan to be able to voice these concerns is important. And there has been a robust outpouring of support from Taiwanese civil society, with groups like the Green Party (綠黨) holding high profile press conferences with us that have raised awareness and the profile of Thai issues in Taiwanese media.
One of the issues that Thais need to articulate is how to connect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s threat to Taiwan and Hong Kong to the issues in Thailand, and the ways the CCP acts as support for Thailand’s dictatorship, or for dictatorship in Cambodia, in Laos, all over the region. If that kind of narrative can be expanded in the Taiwanese public sphere, it will help to bring the Thai political context to the Taiwanese people.
KM: In light of everything that’s happened in the past year or so, especially with Myanmar recently, how can we navigate forging the Milk Tea Alliance going forward?
Thachaporn: Many people think that Milk Tea Alliance only exists in an online space, but if we consider Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong… especially Myanmar, Thai people are only one step away from Burmese people, and now our government refuses to accept refugees from Myanmar. In terms of how to help, you just need to voice your opinion that you don’t stand for your government’s decision about the refugees, or the Burmese coup.
Adam: So the issue here is, no one “owns” the Milk Tea Alliance, and it’s not like any single organization is the Milk Tea Alliance; it’s a catchphrase, for people who have these sentiments that are mutual, in terms of opposition to authoritarianism and hopes for democratic self-determination. The Milk Tea Alliance can be anyone who has that general vision; it’s not as if TATD is the Milk Tea Alliance. It’s a technological tool for people with similar viewpoints to talk to each other – like #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate – that’s what it is. A colleague and I recently wrote a journal article analyzing the significance of the #MilkTeaAlliance, for those interested in a more in-depth analysis.
There’s a Thai professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Wasana Wongsurawat, she’s quite vocal in her support of democracy movements and the Milk Tea Alliance, and she made a keen observation in which she noted that milk tea is consumed in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where they have their local versions of milk tea, but if you think about it, China does not drink milk tea traditionally. In China, tea is generally hot, you don’t really put milk in tea, that’s kind of considered a foreign,Western thing. In a way, calling it the Milk Tea Alliance is clearly distinguishing the opposition as Beijing—the Chinese Communist Party to be specific.”
What the Milk Tea Alliance aims to do is to show that so many Asian countries have their own domestic struggles with authoritarianism, autocratization, dictatorship… and that in building a solidarity movement you’re not alone, that we have this behemoth in Beijing that wants to basically build a new regional order built on dictatorship, so how do you fight back against that? That resistance is the Milk Tea Alliance, and now who is that? Lots of people are that.
So you have to keep up the momentum, show that it’s not just an online movement – TATD’s protests, the recent Burmese protests across Myanmar as well as in Taiwanand other countries – they’re all embracing the discourse of the Milk Tea Alliance, because we realize that there’s this common struggle. At the same time, we should be careful not to evaluate or pass judgement on how effective the Milk Tea Alliance is, because that’s the wrong framework – what’s changed with dictatorships in the region over the past year? Maybe not a whole lot in terms of who’s in power, but the raising of consciousness among young people and building a movement out of solidarity – that’s something that can’t be measured.
(Feature photo courtesy of TATD)
Aurora ChangAurora Chang is a student at University College London in History, Politics and Economics. She is active in NGOs including NOW!, Project Taiwan, and Taiwan Mixed, taking part in protests, events coordinating, research, writing, web design and social media management. Her interests include the human rights and foreign policy, with a specific regional interest in Russia, East Asia, and Central Asia. She currently manages social media for Ketagalan Media.