Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 20 October 2020

A heady brew: MilkTea Alliance links Thai and Hong Kong protests

The alliance was founded to take on China's social media trolls. Now its supporters have more lofty ambitions across south-east Asia.

Emma Connors

It started as an anti-China meme. Now the Milk Tea Alliance has become a regional pro-democracy movement linking tens of thousands of protesters in Thailand with supporters in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

As protesters in Bangkok again defied the government of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha by taking to the streets on Monday, a small group of Hong Kong activists rallied in support.

Not alone: Pro-democracy activists in Bangkok on Monday. AP

Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement was among them. "Together we shall weather the authoritarian storm and reclaim our freedom," he said on Twitter.

Across south-east Asia, governments are fighting to restore order. In Jakarta, unions were again mobilising on Tuesday, calling on their members to show their opposition to changes to labour laws with marches organised in the capital Jakarta and another 18 cities.

Protests in Bangkok show no signs of slowing and, amid the three-fingered salute co-opted from the Hunger Games, signs and flags representing the MilkTea Alliance, Hong Kong and Taiwan are also visible, pointing to support from outside of Thailand.

Named in honour of the drink popular in Asian countries other than China, the Milk Tea Alliance began as a joint response to China-leaning social media trolls. It sprang to prominence in Thailand earlier this year after a Thai soap opera star and his girlfriend were attacked online after they expressed support for Hong Kong independence.

Now supporters of the Alliance have more lofty ambitions, using it to unite disparate pan-Asian pro-democracy movements.

The growing popularity of the Alliance is one more irritant for the Thai government. So far its arrest of prominent activists and declaration of a state of emergency has failed to quieten protesters, whose demands for the Prime Minister's resignation, constitutional reform and a curb on the powers of an increasingly unpopular King have attracted worldwide attention.

On Monday, the government announced an investigation of four popular media outlets, a move immediately criticised as an attack on press freedom. It also ordered internet service providers and telecommunication companies to block access to the messaging app Telegram used by protest organisers.

The Prime Minister has also recalled parliament, a move unlikely to placate activists after legislators shied away from proposed constitutional change.

Thailand's recent history shows repeated clashes between pro-democracy forces and governments closely aligned with the armed forces. In 2010, the current Prime Minister was commander-in-chief of the Royal Army at the time of the crackdown on "red shirt" demonstrations. Four years later he led the military coup that installed a junta in May 2014.

General Prayuth was appointed Prime Minister by unelected legislators later that year and kept the job after Thailand's 2019 general election.

In February, the opposition Future Forward party that won 81 of the 500 seats decided in the 2019 election was forcibly dissolved by Thailand's constitutional court. Party founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit says those taking to the streets now are determined to break with tradition.

"The Thai people have had enough of this vicious cycle of coup d’etats, protests, crackdowns, and sham elections," Mr Thanathorn wrote on The Diplomat debate site late last month. "The younger generations refuse to stay silent. They want their children to grow up in a country where they can freely speak their minds."

Where these protests differ from those in previous years is in the increasingly strident calls to reduce the constitutional – and spending power – of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.


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