SINGAPORE: Months of protests in Thailand reached a critical juncture on Oct 16 when police deployed water cannons – the strongest use of force against protesters calling for reform of the Thai monarchy and removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.
This sparked a flurry of online posts on popular social media platform Twitter under the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance.
Netizens from Hong Kong and Taiwan posted messages of support for Thai activists. Student activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan organised physical rallies in solidarity with Thai protesters.
Thai protesters even took a page out of Hong Kong protesters’ playbook, and wore hard hats, goggles and gas masks for protection following showdowns with the police.
But that didn’t stop another round of police unleashing water cannons on protesters on Nov 8. Developments, fortunately, did not escalate and the protesters were able to hand over a letter to the king outlining their concerns.
SHARED LOVE FOR MILK TEA AND MORE
The Milk Tea Alliance spans Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, and gets its name from a shared love of the drink.
The grouping was born in April from an online battle between Chinese and Thai netizens, triggered by Thai actor Vachirawat Chivaaree and his girlfriend’s tweets of support for Hong Kong independence.
A loose alliance of netizens from Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan created the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance to rally supporters to push back against Chinese netizens by posting memes and other self-depreciating content on Twitter and Facebook.
Some memes emphasise the unity between members – a popular one is an illustration of three varieties of milk tea linking arms together – while others poke fun at the perceived braggadocio of Chinese nationalists.
The online initiative has evolved into a regional movement for greater political autonomy.
Activists and protesters are for the most part, young professionals, university and high school students. They are tech-savvy and have actively participated in protests.
Members of the alliance have worked together to promote their protests. Hong Kong activists have raised the three-fingered salute, a symbol for reform in Thailand, while protesters in Thailand have highlighted the plight of 12 Hong Kong youths detained by Chinese authorities in September.
However, just as milk tea is drunk differently, the specific goals of the protests in the alliance vary.
Thai protesters advocate for the reform of Thailand’s military leadership and the monarchy, while Hong Kong protesters want greater autonomy from China.
While some Thai protesters have also explicitly expressed concerns over the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence in Thailand and the region as a chief area of their platform, domestic issues have clearly taken precedence.
THE ROLE OF MESSAGING APPS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Their ability to mobilise quickly, through instant messaging, social media and word-of-mouth, allows protesters to stay one step ahead of authorities.
Encrypted messaging chat apps such as Telegram are used to communicate information and share strategies for rallies and marches.
While these protests are leaderless – with no single or obvious leaders – their flat hierarchy allows decisions to be made quickly. Strategies evolve from the ground-up, through online forums or messaging chat groups on Telegram, where participants vote on the next course of action.
This has provided protesters fluidity in changing circumstances. Gathering points for rallies are posted in messaging platforms at the very last minute, allowing protesters to create spontaneous flash mobs, hampering efforts by authorities to rapidly break up crowds.
For instance, on Oct 17 in Bangkok, organisers messaged protesters to board public trains at 3pm and wait for further instructions on where to disembark. But authorities caught wind of this, and shut down various train lines and stations by 3pm.
Nonetheless, organisers confirmed by tweet that rallies would go ahead at select locations, and within an hour, participants showed up on foot, motorcycle or tuk tuk.
Hashtags such as #StandwithThailand and #MilkTeaAlliance on Twitter amplify the messages of the protests while Facebook pages calling for support and their mainstream media coverage have propelled the movement to international attention.
READ: Commentary: Thailand has done well in taming the coronavirus pandemic so what’s with these protests?
IS TROUBLE BREWING?
Social media and technology platforms provide greater awareness and exposure to contrarian viewpoints online, even as young adults turn away from perceived traditional or rigid social norms and hierarchies.
A lack of participatory politics comes at a time where the growing bulge of youth in Asia demand more inclusiveness in society, and are willing to question existing flaws in political leadership.
In Thailand, for instance, youths are angry over the Feb 21 dissolution of opposition group Future Forward Party (FFP) – which garnered the third-largest share of seats in the 2019 Thai elections. The court had dissolved the party on the basis that a US$6 million loan from party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to finance FFP’s campaign was illegal as it violated limits on political donations by individuals.
Critics say the move was politically motivated, as it happened shortly before a no-confidence debate against six Cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Prayut.
Although the protests are rooted in political and generational grievances, economic factors have also contributed towards protesters’ unhappiness.
While economic hardship is not prominently featured in Thai protest narratives, the severe economic downturn and rising social inequalities have deepened resentment. COVID-19 has exacerbated these hardships.
The Asian Development Bank estimates youth unemployment rate in Thailand to rise to 16.4 per cent in 2020, up from 4.2 per cent in 2019. Young adults graduating from universities will struggle to find work – since they have to compete with more experienced jobseekers for fewer jobs – and will likely earn less for years to come.
The Milk Tea Alliance is not without its critics. Some warn of the polarising effects of protests in Thailand, as tensions between protesters and the older generation of conservatives and royalists could lead to violent confrontations.
THE END GAME OF THE MILK TEA ALLIANCE
The protests in Thailand are expected to continue. The momentum built over months of protests is unlikely to dissipate soon, as empowered youths continue to challenge and advocate for structural reforms.
Young people in other parts of Asia within the region may also be equally inspired by their counterparts in Thailand or Hong Kong.
For instance, the movement has resonated in neighbouring Laos. The hashtag “if Lao politics was good” triggered a deluge of criticism at the Laotian government over corruption and inequality. As of Oct 20, the hashtag had almost 400,000 posts, which were also often tagged with #MilkTeaAlliance.
The Thai government announced on Oct 28 that it will set up parliamentary committees to study the issues raised by protesters. Protesters, however, have refused to participate in the parliament-initiated political reconciliation panel.
Without the participation and input of the protesters themselves, it remains to be seen if a fruitful debate or outcome can arise.
Providing visions for societies to unite under shared commonalities and values looks to be increasingly difficult. As societies reel from economic pain inflicted by COVID-19, how leaders respond to growing dissent is crucial.
The Alliance may push forward on its current momentum, or it may lose steam. One thing is for certain: No matter the outcome, campaigns such as the Milk Tea Alliance demonstrate youth will find ways to make their voices heard – loudly.
Dymples Leong is a Senior Analyst with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.