Myanmar protests Milk Tea Alliance: Leaderless movement unsettles Beijing

Storm in a milk tea cup: China battles a leaderless movement

What has milk tea got to do with democracy? It apparently had little, before the age of the internet.

In France, for example, farmers once hurled eggs at a visiting government official. But it did not reach quite an internet sensation level.

On Monday, Twitter users, mostly in South East Asia were calling for the Thai government not to deport three journalists who had fled Myanmar when the military junta there revoked their licences. They tweeted under the #MilkTeaAlliance.

Kyaw Zaw, Hein Wunna Zaw and Aung Min Thant Kyaw worked for a Burmese TV known as DVB Burmese, which ran critical stories on the military junta. After the junta deposed a civilian government in February, DVB was banned on March 8 after reporting on violence meted on civilian protesters opposed to the military government. Its journalists fled the country.

Reporters in danger

Aye Chang Naing, the executive director and chief editor of the DVB Burmese said on Monday that the reporters would be in danger if the Thai government returned them to Myanmar.

“Their lives will be in serious danger if they were to return [to Myanmar],” he said in a statement.

“We request the international community to help call the Thai authorities to waive their deportation.”

China though, is worried events in Myanmar are being fuelled by people it calls anti-China mongers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the past, China called for peace in Myanmar although critics say its investment of more than $20 billion into the country has emboldened the junta.

Milk Tea Alliance

“The separatist forces in Taiwan and Hong Kong are obviously taking advantage of the turmoil in Myanmar to shift people’s anger toward the Chinese mainland.

“Since the internal political upheaval in Myanmar, the Taiwan authorities have quickly conducted the evacuation of some overseas residents.”

The Milk Tea Alliance was not popular until a year ago when Thai TV drama star Vichirawit Chivaaree and his girlfriend ran into a Twitter storm with China’s online defenders.

Vichirawit’s ‘sin’ was to label Hong Kong as an independent country, which China insists it is its special administrative territory. After the storm, he deleted the post and apologised.

But there was more to come: His girlfriend identified as Nnevvy Sukaram had in 2017 posted Taiwan as independent of China. Linking the two, Chinese netizens sustained the attacks on the couple, seeing it as a subtle message by the Thai government.

One China policy

In truth, the government of Thailand, like many countries across the world recognises one China policy, with Beijing as the representative capital. It however, maintains informal contacts with Taipei.

Events in Myanmar, however, mean the storm has expanded beyond China’s territorial fights, reaching as far as Myanmar where a military junta has bludgeoned protesters opposed to the removal of a civilian government back in February.

Last month, Twitter raised a new storm after creating an emoji for the Milk Tea Alliance, which started last year following the controversy of the Thai actor.

“To celebrate the first anniversary of the #MilkTeaAlliance, we designed an emoji featuring 3 different types of milk tea colours from regions where the Alliance first formed online.” Twitter said.

“During times of civil unrest or violent crackdowns, it is more important than ever for the public to have access to the #OpenInternet for real-time updates, credible information, and essential services.”

Milk teas

Each of the countries in the region neighbouring China enjoys some form of milk tea often referred to as ‘Chai’, although the recipes may differ. The Indians like masala tea, Taiwanese like bubble tea, Hong Kong residents stylise theirs in a recipe that includes cross-cultural heritage. Thais and Burmese too love their versions. But they are all drunk hot, in cups. Twitter’s emoji for the Alliance includes the cup on a background of various colours of the teas drunk in the region.

“It’s important as it shows the young people fighting for democracy that the world is with them and they’re making an impact,” Netiwit ‘Frank’ Chotiphatphaisal, a Thai internet rights activist and translator said of the movement.

“It’s very good that Twitter has recognised what we have fought for for many years. We have to fight not only our dictators but also with Chinese dominance,” he added.

Twitter is banned in China and the response from Beijing when it created the Emoji was that of another biased step.

Zhao Lijian, China’ Foreign Ministry spokesman gave a brief response when asked about the move.

“Twitter has been biased against China all along based on its anti-China position, to which we firmly oppose.”

Useful tool

Twitter, despite the ban in mainland China, has been a useful tool for Chinese government officials when communicating with audiences abroad. And Hua Chunying, the director-general for information at the Chinese Foreign Ministry did say Beijing was tapping into the tool just as foreign officials have used Chinese social media.

“I wonder if they have also looked into the number of foreign media and diplomats using WeChat or Weibo? Why can’t Chinese people use Twitter or Facebook when foreigners can use Chinese social media platforms?” she posed.

“We are just adding an extra channel to share information and communicate with people in other countries. The fundamental reason for this sort of hype-up is that some in the West including the US don’t want to hear the objective true voice from China on the issue of origin-tracing.”

Netzens posting under #MilkTeaAlliance, however, criticise the Chinese government for restricting that very freedom, both at home and abroad.

The Alliance has posted information on the Mynamar crackdowns, Hong Kong protests and Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet issues as well as Covid-19 information sharing. Those issues have also included environmental campaigns, with lobbies in neighbouring countries criticising China’s construction of dams along the Mekong River. The River connects Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and on into Vietnam, fuelling cultivation of hundreds of acres of rice paddies. Even critics from India, which has had border tiffs with China have joined in.

Yet, the Milk Tea Alliance is a leaderless movement.

Beijing’s response has been a spirited campaign to discredit the group. The Global Times, for instance, wrote a commentary suggesting that most of the critics were from Taiwan and Hong Kong, so it was expected they would be anti-China.

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