With it being somewhat over a year now since the emergence of the milk tea alliance and a month or so since it got recognition from Twitter with a little emoji thingy, I thought I would write a ramble trying to articulate a few thoughts about why the #MilkTeaAlliance matters. I’m no scholar or journalist but hopefully this is a useful contribution. A bit of background to begin:
What is the #MilkTeaAlliance?
The #MilkTeaAlliance, contrary to some misconceptions is not an “organisation” as such, there isn’t a leader or “founders”. It is in essence a loose coalition of activists (groups, movements, artists, academics, shit posters & others) who share similar goals.
The origins of the name/hashtag/meme came about through a bizarre online battle & meme war #Nnevvy (1), but grew and evolved (2) into something more with initially activists from Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan joining their voices together to promote each others cause (3). This has expanded to include activists from Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar. In addition Tibetan & Uyghur activists are quite involved and a number of other movements from around the globe have also dropped in and out of using the hashtag to raise awareness.
In general the core unifying factors are anti-authoritarianism, anti-state violence against the people, pro-democracy, pro-free speech & human rights. There are also a strong contingent of LGBTQI voices and feminist groups within the alliance. The last factor which is fairly common is anti-CCP (Chinese communist party) feeling which is due to the CCP being a direct threat in many cases or a factor in some of the issues being faced.
The Global Context:
Authoritarianism is on the rise across the world. Almost 70% of countries covered by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index recorded a decline in their overall score (4). Similarly press-freedom is under threat with only 12 countries being deemed as having a “good” media environment by reporters without borders (5). Even in the supposed defenders of free speech and democracy such as the US and UK have seen police violence against protests. Furthermore in the UK there is a bill being passed that would hand the police sweeping powers to suppress protests (6).
In addition to rising authoritarianism, the geopolitical power dynamics are beginning to polarise again with the interactions between the dominant powers, US, EU, Russia, China & India more strained to such an extent that institutions such as the UN are being hamstrung.
In South East Asia where the alliance originated, suppression of freedom has become common with state violence begin perpetuated against civilians in many ways. Here is a little of the background for some of the movements This is by no means is this exhaustive, not even close sadly.
In Hong Kong 2019, the people of the city were galvanised in opposing the extradition bill and came onto the streets on mass (estimates of 1.7 million people at some marches). The police responses to many of these protests were harsh and there were many events of police misconduct, excessive use of force and other abuses (7). While that bill was withdrawn, the following year a new national security law was imposed by Beijing, which has massively cracked down on freedom of speech, assembly, expression, journalists, activists and politicians. Many are now jailed or in self-exile. It seems like every day the Hong Kong administration introduces a new measure to curb freedom.
In Thailand, which has a long, 90 year, history of elected governments being overthrown my the military (with the “blessing” of the monarchy), protests initially began after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party. They had been pushing for changes to the constitution, these rapidly expanded to include demands for a full democratic system and the unprecedented demand by students for reform of the monarchy. Protests occurred across the country and peaked at an estimated 100,000 people. The response from the military government was not unexpected with vast deployments of police & water cannon, arrests of “leaders”, suppression of online expression (a number of pages removed on Facebook at government request), pressure on schools to stop students protesting and even shipped in violent mobs of counter protesters. Additionally use of the infamous 112 sedition law has expanded dramatically.
In Indonesia the “Omnibus law” significantly curtailed workers rights and environmental protections. It was written behind closed doors. A Civil society collation formed of 15 activist groups, including trade unions, condemned the bill and called on workers to join a national strike. Protests against the law were met with riot police and tear gas. There is also ongoing suppression in West Papua where the security forces are brutally cracking down on rights of the indigenous population.
In Myanmar the Military overthrew the elected government after the election in February. The peoples of Myanmar have staged ongoing resistance to the Junta through strikes & protests. Along side the civilian resistance, the ceasefire with number of armed ethnic organisations has collapsed and these are also fighting the military. The military has been very violent in trying to contain this resistance, using live ammo on protesters and airstrikes on ethnic populations. Over 700 people have been killed, thousands detained and many displaced.
There are many more examples and more movements in the alliance but at risk of making the background too long… Lets get into why it matters.
Why it matters!
It’s a response to the rise in authoritarianism!
At it’s core the various movements that have interacted with #milkteaalliance stand against authoritarianism, against state & police violence, stand for freedom of speech, assembly and for democracy. While their descriptions & experience of these things may differ the fundamental core values are more or less the same. Given the regional influence of the CCP, unreliable support coming from western democracies and the intransigence of both the UN and ASEAN, it is down to ordinary people to respond. The MilkTeaAlliance is part of that response.
Creating a bigger voice. It’s a banner & a signpost.
Each movement may not be able to get it’s message very far on it’s own. Media coverage is notoriously quick to move it’s lens from one place to another. By linking up with other movements, each movement can amplify the other. This can be important in the face of some of the suppression that exists. Is it too risky to promote your cause because of where you live, promote one of the others, there will be reciprocation (not that is a transactional thing but it just kinda happens). This way the profile of the issues can be kept up, stories keep getting shared and the issue is less likely to get lost in the melee.
At it’s least the #milkteaalliance is a banner to help groups raise awareness. It is often the 2nd or 3rd Hashtag, less often the 1st. It helps raise awareness, groups can use it to highlight their plight and if it gets picked up it can raise a lot of awareness as it travels throughout social media. A recent example of this were the protests in Colombia. It started as a bit of a throwaway comment as does everything on Twitter between me and a Colombian freelance journalist:
A few more people who use the #milkteaallinace picked up on what was happening and some of the named Milk Tea Alliance accounts (of which there are quite a few) also got involved in sharing the news from Colombia which lead to people in Myanmar, Philippines, Taiwan all highlighting the issue and a few posting messages of support to the protesters in Colombia.
Soon 100s of messages of support, solidarity & information started appearing. Some with the #MilkTeaAlliance tag, some without.
And it wasn’t one way either, soon messages of solidarity came back from Colombia for Myanmar. Now activists are talking, sharing their stories. Both countries are deep in crisis but not alone.
And a day or so later there was the official (official is a joke, there is no process lol, just use the tag if you agree with the core values, want to raise awareness etc ) announcement that the protests in Colombia had joined the #milkteaalliance was posted. If this takes root and builds longer term solidarity who knows but in the moment the activists within the alliance helped raise the profile of what was happening in Colombia and that I believe was useful. For more on this story click here
It provides a link and starting point for collaboration.
While some collaboration between movements is expected and normal, the #MilkTeaAlliance has helped build more of these links. Not only by making people aware of each others causes but also by providing spaces for it to happen. In the background there are groups, on twitter, discord, signal, telegram and on the ground that are collaborating, sharing ideas, translating, raising funds, organising together. Providing encouragement, moral and mental support to each other. There is no way of mapping it all, it is diffuse but it’s different groups working together to aid each other.
Showing up for each other on the ground.
At a recent protest for #GlobalSpringRevolutionDay a set of marches in many countries to raise awareness of the situation in Myanmar, activists from other movements got involved. In the UK Nathan Law spoke and other Hong Kong activists marched alongside the Myanmar diaspora in solidarity.
Other joint marches have also occurred which draw together many groups working together to call for action:
Chants for other causes make their way into protests in this case Thai protesters shouted chants in support of Hong Kong, protest swapping or joint protests really aid in building solidarity between groups:
Workshops, Webinars, resource & experience sharing.
Joint seminars and webinars on diverse topics from mental health, self care, campaigning, feminism are common, some formal, some informal seem to run on a regular basis hosted by different movements, this helps spread knowledge.
When I was looking into the early days of the #MilkTeaAlliance, specifically when Myanmar was 1st mentioned, I was a little surprised to find that it wasn’t after the coup but actually a day after the hashtag was 1st used. This was in the context of the Mekong dams projects and the impact of them. An issue that I wasn’t really aware of, I asked the question what it was about and within an hour #MilkTeaAlliance activists had dropped 5 articles, 3 memes, 1 diagram, an academic paper and the details of one group campaigning on the matter into the thread.
There are experts, academics, specialists in all sorts of subjects who either are tangentially or directly involved in the movement. The experience that is exists and is shared is quite incredible.
“The friends we make along the way”
I’m not joking, sounds cheesy but don’t underestimate this. I’ve met more people, heard more stories and have a much greater understanding of areas of the world I had never thought about before through being kinda active in #milkteaalliance . From all corners of the globe I now regularly talk to people I would have never encountered. People of different ages, identities and backgrounds. People who have taught me so many things, like how to be a better ally, where to find good information, their history, their cares, hopes and pain.
These interpersonal relationships are fundamental to almost everything that the #MilkTeaAlliance has managed so far. On top of that the feeling of not being alone in you struggle, that someone is listening is immensely valuable and might be the most important reasons as to why it matters.
I didn’t want this just to be me vomiting my thoughts onto a page so I asked some of the people I interact with (and openly on twitter) for their thoughts on the broad subject of why the #MilkTeaAlliance matters either to them or as a whole. Here are a few of the submissions. (More may get added).
“For me, the Milk Tea Alliance matters as it shows that despite our diverse backgrounds and ideologies across Asia, it shows that we share the universal aspirations for democracy & human rights. It gives a concrete name & banner to our shared struggles & sense of solidarity for one another. Furthermore, it is vital as when people across the MTA countries unite, it pressures those in power, especially authoritarian regime to heed & buckle to the demands of the masses. To be frank, the Milk Tea Alliance hasn’t become mainstream yet in activists spaces in the Philippines. However, more and more orgs are taking notice as we are now further working to collaborate with fisherfolk, youth, artist, & civic orgs as well as the Office of Sen. Hontiveros. In the context of CCP encroachment, when people across Asia unite under this banner, it shows that their wolf warrior diplomacy may scare their puppet politicians but not the citizenry of the nations.” :-@MTA_PH
Milk Tea Alliance Philippines, is probably one of the more “organised” groups in its own right as Milk Tea Alliance. Even then it is actually a group of activists from other movements who have come together both to promote both the issues in Philippines and awareness of other causes under the banner. They have run some amazing sessions on a range of issues including mental health/selfcare, Open discussions & sessions on the issue of the west Philippines sea incursions by CCP forces.
“To me Milk tea not only is a drink, it brings comfort, it brings joy; with each group and country of the #MilkTeaAlliance supporting each other, sharing our similarities and celebrating our triumphs together — we continue our fight for democracy and freedom” :- Anonymous Hong Kong activist.
Due to the national security law in Hong Kong this person asked to remain anonymous. Sadly a common occurrence these days, with many in Hong Kong being much more cautious in speaking out publicly. This also demonstrates why having allies elsewhere to help raise your issues is so important.
“MTA matters to me because as a person even though I come from one place my heritage is tied to the other #MilkTeaAlliance countries. I think most people live where we aren’t just bound by our nation state and hence can empathise with each other’s struggles. I think most people I notice on twitter also they lived in each other’s countries, grew up watching each other’s movies and sometimes there is also propaganda from our governments against each other, Like Thailand and Myanmar, Hong Kong and Taiwan looking at SEA countries as migrant workers But milk tea alliance kind of changes that Because people are realising that we deserve better and fighting for better countries respectively and these kind of divisions aren’t real.” — @alliancemilktea
This twitter account is one of a number of hubs for information & highlighting what is happening across the alliance. The admins are anonymous but do a really good job of linking people, highlighting news and raising the voices from around the alliance. Also key to point out while the named accounts exist they are just a part of the movement, they are not the leaders or spokespeople as such.
“#mmcoupfam and #MilkTeaAlliance Thanks so much. I have already learned heaps, and had my oldish brain switched back on to what’s important. You guys are inspiring and comforting in equal measure.” :- @ShweLaminYGN2
Shwe La Min is a Myanmar activist, writer and self proclaimed “banterer”.
“I feel the #MilkTeaAlliance has formed from a desire by activists — and often more *progressive* activists, to build their own space, that is away from the usual Western leftist sphere which many of us feel has been co-opted a lot by “Tankies” (those who support the CCP against the USA). I genuinely see Pan-Asian solidarity based on shared values, from a bunch of people who actually live out anti-imperialism in the #MilkTeaAlliance. Seeing the additional focus on environmental issues and Multinationals influence suggests the coalition could get bigger. Even if the #MilkTeaAlliance doesn’t last long, my hunch is it’s trained a bunch of future activists and movers and shakers for the region, I’ve seen kids who want to run for office and some want to turn the platform into IRL political power. It’s great to see the compassion & solidarity from the #MilkTeaAlliance so far but this will get tested. There is a tension between it’s ideals and nationalism which needs thinking about but if it can find it’s way through it will be make a huge difference.”:- Anon. This account asked to have no details about them included at all.
“Just wanted to drop a message and say how much your (the #milkTeaAlliance) allyship for us is appreciated. It can feel like such a lonely experience being inside the country. To know people like you are watching over us is a good feeling” :- Anon protester in Myanmar.
Like in Hong Kong, for many in Myanmar it is not safe to use their real name or get “focus” due to the Junta.
Media, Articles, papers and other works.
Firstly from the whole #milkTeaAlliance, THANKYOU to all the hard working journalists, photographers, commentators & academics that have covered all the causes, abuses and events that have occurred. The ones that have covered things with care, taken the time to understand, speak to people, protected their sources, risked themselves, been arrested, beaten and some killed, we are hugely grateful.
Numerous articles, media pieces, blogs have been written globally on the #milkTeaAlliance phenomenon. It has definitely captured the imagination in some quarters. In this respect by helping to capture the focus of the media it has helped raise the profile of it’s component struggles.
Some articles have been great, understood it’s nature and discussed it with nuance. Others haven’t grasped the concept very well. One anonymous source said: “I’m really tired of having to explain that it is not an organisation and there is no leader”. Wasn’t quite the response I expected when I reached out to them but shows some of the fundamental challenges this new kind of decentralised alliance can have to the “usual” ways of thinking and categorisations.
There has been at least one peer reviewed paper on the #MilkTeaAlliance so far which looked into it’s impact and importance. It is well worth a read, I’ve taken the liberty of quoting a small paragraph of it here:
“the real power of the #MilkTeaAlliance is essentially phenomenological: its political puissance is captured in the ways it is activated by activists across Asia — both as a visibility strategy for generating transnational alliances and as an affective haven where activists can retreat for support and solidarity — not in expeditiously toppling dictators. Ultimately, the power of hashtag-organized movements like the #MilkTeaAlliance is nurtured via “an affective and technological activist assemblage that links social media conversations to the formation and practices of movement organisations” — Digitally Dismantling Asian Authoritarianism: Activist Reflections from the #MilkTeaAlliance; Adam K. Dedman and Autumn Lai 2021(8)
Conclusion? (AKA I don’t know how to draw all of it together)
I’m not sure I have answered “why the #MilkTeaAlliance matters” fully in this article, there is so much more that could be said.
Just as a reminder the #MilkTeaAlliance is a loose coalition, really loose but also has some strong links built on friendship shared suffering and shared objectives. By building bridges and solidarity it also allows faster response, better understanding of needs, increases the effectiveness of our support and hopefully provides some hope that we are not alone in our battles despite the distances between us.
I think it was @xmmooxx (on twitter) that said “MilkTeaAlliance is sharing each others pain” which is accurate and had it’s roots in another quote from a Brian Leung Kai-ping (@BrianLeungKP on twitter) “Hong Kong Belongs to Everyone Who Shares Its Pain”.(9)
These quotes are a great representation of what one of the strengths of the alliance is and why the alliance continues to function, grow, provide support to each other.
Will it ever be enough to tip the scales in any of the struggles? I honestly don’t know but I believe that it shows that there is another way to fight together, something that has the potential to change narratives and engage 1000’s of people all over the world. By unifying our voices we do shout a lot louder.
Thanks to everyone who chipped in with comments and thoughts. There is way too much to cover. If you are reading this and wondering “what can I do to get involved” a few thoughts on that subject can be found (here)
I will leave the last word to a paragraph from an excellent blog post I randomly found.
“In the shadows again, a new generation of supranational worldmakers — bound together less by milk tea and more by a satiating desire for democracy — will mount a new challenge to hierarchy and demand a new reconceptualisation of sovereignty. Whether China will recognize the power of this new alliance remains to be seen” :- Jasmine Chia (@chia_jasmine on twitter) & Scott Singer, November 2020. (10)
So that is all, thanks for sticking with this rambling if you got this far. Would love to hear your thoughts on #milkTeaAlliance
I’m @XunlingAu on twitter. To my friends and allies on the front-lines, stay safe.
(7): https://tl.hkrev.info/en/police-timeline/ (USE VPN IF IN HK)