Fighting tyranny with milk tea: the young rebels joining forces in Asia

The language, the demands and the backdrop were different, but the protests across central Bangkok last week would have looked familiar to anyone who followed the mass demonstrations that roiled Hong Kong for a year from June 2019. Crowds of young protesters, dressed in black and wearing hard hats, poured through the streets to locations announced at the last minute on social media. As the police closed in and the protesters prepared for confrontation, hand gestures and human chains ensured supplies including protective masks and water reached the front lines. Tactics adopted from Hong Kong demonstrations have helped the movement survive both the jailing of most of its leaders and direct attempts by the prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to ban the demonstrations. But Hong Kong has not only provided inspiration in Bangkok. In recent months an unexpected solidarity has developed between young protesters and activists across Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, at first online but increasingly now in protests on the streets, in law courts and in the corridors of power. Their fights are serious ones, against governments with a ruthless track record of crushing dissent. But the symbol of east Asia’s informal coalition is playful, a simple beverage enjoyed in all three places, leading protesters to dub their unlikely cross-border support the “Milk Tea Alliance”. Milk tea is drunk differently in each place, just as their individual battles vary. Cold with tapioca bubbles in Taiwan, hot and strong in Hong Kong, iced and sweetened with condensed milk in Thailand. But the basic ingredients are the same, just as the protesters’ basic aim – democracy – is shared. “When you have to go against a big power you have to be creative,” said Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a prominent student activist in Bangkok. “The name is very cute – it’s appealing and people [see] it’s not aggressive.”

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