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2020 Saw Many Protests, But Here’s Why The ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ Stands Out

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“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty, the obedient must be slaves.” Perhaps Henry David Thoreau would have smiled in his grave had he known about the protests of 2020.

When the Malawian election was rigged to favour the incumbent Peter Mutharika, the people took to the streets which led to re-election, giving them a legitimate leader named Lazarus Chakwera. The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racism. The people of Hong Kong and Thailand stood in solidarity against their respective authoritarian regimes.

For the year 2020 people in authority were forced to listen to the voices of the unheard. In many protests, those voices boomed throughout the world earning sympathy across borders.

We also witnessed novel ideas of protests being exchanged across borders. The old battle of hurling bricks and stones in the streets now also took place through memes and trolls in the new arena of smartphones. In the highly sophisticated city of Hong Kong, the protestors and the government found themselves battling with and against technology as both were united in the common purpose of using it to their advantage.

In this article, I will talk about how the youth of Thailand and Hong Kong rewrote the 101 of protests with their loose-knit borderless alliance known as the Milk Tea Alliance.

Reasons behind the Protests 

According to articles by the BBC titled, The Hong Kong protests explained in 100 and 500 words [1] and Hong Kong-China extradition plans explained [2], the protests began in Hong Kong as the result of a controversial bill passed by Mainland China. The bill, introduced in April 2019, stated that suspected criminals could be extradited to Mainland China under certain circumstances. Mainland China justified this bill by stating that it wanted to avoid Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals.

However, the people of Hong Kong felt that Beijing would use this to conduct arbitrary arrests, torture people, which would ultimately risk the safety of activists, lawyers, journalists and social workers. This ultimately led to protests in Hong Kong in June. The city of Hong Kong, unlike other Chinese cities, enjoys relative autonomy which includes the democratic election of their leaders and freedom of speech.

According to an article by Reuters titled, Explainer: What’s Behind Thailand’s protests? [3], the protests were sparked when the most vocal opposition party opposing the former government of junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha was banned.

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a former military man, had seized power in a coup in the year 2014. Just before the 2019 elections, the incumbent Chan-Ocha won a second term after the opposition party was disbanded. The protestors wanted Prayuth to resign to which he refused. The protestors also wanted a new constitution and reform the powers of the monarchy and end harassment of activists.

One must also note that criticising the monarchy in Thailand has always been a taboo as their Kings are considered divine. Thailand has one of the strictest Lese-Majeste laws in the world which can get people a sentence up to 15 years for merely insulting the monarchy.

Why the name Milk Tea Alliance?

The name Milk Tea alliance sprang up in April 2019 with the hashtag to attack pro-Beijing trolls. It was a counter-attack at the trolls that were attempting to undermine the protests in Hong Kong. The name Milk Tea alliance stuck with the protestors as a symbol of democracy and resistance against the Chinese authoritarian regime.

Further in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, milk is always added with tea, although with variations, whereas in Mainland China milk is not added. It is only extraordinary to see that an iconic yet unassuming beverage such as tea would be a factor to unite people across borders with a common cause to challenge the authority.

The Protests

Perhaps the easiest way to snub the flames of dissent is to capture the leaders behind it. One might also coerce the leaders to make contradictory statements in public to reduce the morale of the protestors. However, what do the governments do when there are no leaders of a protest? Such was the case in the protests of Hong Kong and Thailand.

The leaderless and faceless protests that started in Hong Kong were not coordinated by any leader but by the young through the use of the Telegram app to guard their anonymity. It had been estimated that downloads of the app had soared during the protests in both places. The philosophy adopted in the Hong Kong protests was a famous quote of Bruce Lee, “Be Water”. It means to be flexible and adjust to changing situations. When one needs to move forward one does and steps back when the situation calls for it.

According to a video from South China Morning Post titled, Hong Kong protest tactics: occupy, disrupt, disperse, repeat, they protested in flashmob style where they would protest for a brief moment, disperse as soon as the police arrived only to start the protests in a different location. This was a tactic to exhaust the police.

Another key aspect of the protest was the coordination of the youth during the protests. During the protests, people would form human chains and pass necessities such as water and other medical necessities to treat police beatings and tear gas. Protest locations were messaged on telegram. Before the protest would start the youth would form hurdles of traffic cones and barricades and shield themselves with umbrellas. The umbrellas were used to shield themselves from tear gas. The use of umbrellas was so common that the protests were also referred to as the Umbrella Protests.

Symbolism was another important aspect of the protests. In Thailand, the three-finger salute borrowed from the fictional Hunger Games franchise came to represent the anti-authoritarian protests. According to an article by the BBC titled, Hong Kong protests: The symbols and songs explained [4], yellow ribbons came to be associated with the pro-democracy protests.

The protestors also used yellow helmets and umbrellas to exhibit dissent against China and protect themselves against the police. A song titled, Under a vast sky, from a Cantonese rock band named Beyond became the anthem of the protestors. It is a song that expresses a longing for freedom.

If not for technology, the protests of the Milk Tea Alliance would be completely indistinguishable from other protests. The use of technology by both the authority and the protestors has perhaps set a precedent for future protests.

umbrella protests
The umbrella protests.

In Hong Kong, there are a lot of surveillance cameras. It was feared that the authorities would use the footage as proof to punish them, so the protestors would cover their faces and spray the camera with paint. For the cameras the protestors couldn’t reach, the protestors would blind them with laser pointers.

Even though the police had superior arms and could disperse the protests very effectively, in the realm of technology, it was the protestors which had the upper hand. The protestors in Hong Kong made effective memes and posters that were perhaps more powerful than the firearms.

Some posters had the picture of the Communist party as a huge wolf waiting to pounce upon the protestors. Some posters read that democracy stands with Hong Kong, which had the picture of the Statue of Liberty carrying a torch and leading the protests. Another captivating poster was that of a generic Hong Kong protestor wearing a yellow helmet, with a face-covering posing as Uncle Sam, with the words, “We want you”.

To rouse a sentiment of unity towards a common cause, posters were flooded on social media of the three variants of Milk Tea of Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong. In the poster, the trio of drinks was held by three hands toasting to the occasion. The poster was effective in spurning the protests later in Thailand and the people of two places stood in solidarity to fight the authoritarian regimes.

The protestors felt that the police could identify them if they scanned their identity cards, so the young dissenters covered their cards with tin foil. They never used their metro cards to travel home but rather one-way tickets so that they couldn’t be identified with those cards. The police used water cannons doused in blue dye to identify the protestors, but the young changed into different clothes to evade the police.

Likewise, the protestors had invented various symbols which denoted many things such as the requirement of a helmet, or a gesture to disperse because the police had breached the barrier set up by the protestors.

It was this sophisticated use of technology and posters that left the police in both places fighting an analogue battle against the digitally empowered and tech-savvy youth. Coupled with the ingenious evading tactics used by the young, it frustrated the police and led them to arrest of young Hong Kongers and their families at random.

Although the protest wasn’t successful in its entirety, the enthusiasm displayed by the protestors of the Milk Tea Alliance showed the world novel and ingenious ways to show dissent. There is a lot left to be learnt from these young brave people.

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