In this episode of Thinking in English we will discuss the Milk Tea Alliance. Protestors and pro-democracy activists in South East Asia have begun to connect with each other online using the hashtag Milk Tea Alliance. What is this alliance, how did it start, and what does it involve? And why does it use the name “milk tea?” Hopefully by the end of this episode you will be able to answer some, or all, of these questions!

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Vocabulary List

Viral (adj) – spreading or becoming popular very quickly on the internet

He seems different since he went viral on Tik Tok

Alliance (n) – a group of people or countries who have agreed to work together because of shared interests or aims 

In the USA, religious groups and conservative political parties have formed an alliance

Prominent (adj) – very well known and important 

He is a prominent member of the royal family

To advocate (v) – to publicly support or suggest an idea, development, or way of doing something

The organisation advocates for human rights

Neat (adj) – a drink without anything added to it

She likes her whisky neat, with no ice or water

To distinguish (v) – to notice or understand the different between two things, or to make one person or thing seem different from another 

I’m colour blind and can’t distinguish between red and green easily 

Boycott (v) – to refuse to buy a product or take part in an activity as a way of expressing strong disapproval 

People in China have boycotted H&M’s products 

Nationalism (n) – a great, or too great, love for your own country 

Nationalism has been spreading through Europe recently 

It is two months since the military in Myanmar staged a coup to overthrow the existing government and the country’s incredibly popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, there have been countless protests and attempts to resist the military, which have often been met  by aggressive and violent responses. Numerous civilians have been killed, arrested, and punished. I recorded an earlier episode about the events in Myanmar, so I’ll leave a link to the episode in the description and on my blog. 

On the same day that Myanmar’s military took control of the country, an image of Royal Myanmar Teamix, a local type of tea, was tweeted. This simple picture of tea has now gone viral, been shared tens of thousands of times, and been accompanied by a hashtag often seen in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. #MilkTeaAlliance. What does this hashtag mean? What do these countries have in common? Why has it become a pro-democracy slogan across south east asia? And is it a real alliance?

The term milk tea alliance has become associated with pro-democracy supporters across South East Asia, and especially in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and now Myanmar. It actually first appeared online about a year ago. A prominent Thai actor posted a statement online advocating for Hong Kong’s independence from China. As supporters of China and Chinese nationalists insulted and threatened the actor, both supporters of the Thai actor from Thailand and anti-Chinese internet users from Hong Kong and Taiwan jumped to his defence. The hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance began to be used as a show of cooperation between the protestors arguing against China and in support of Hong Kong. 

Why milk tea alliance? Why did they choose this term to demonstrate their cooperation and support? Well, it actually refers to these countries’ preferences for adding milk to their tea, while China traditionally doesn’t add milk and instead drinks neat tea. Although Hong Kong’s hot Milk Tea, Taiwan’s bubble Milk tea, and Thailand’s sweet iced milk tea are obviously all very different, people online have used ‘milk’ as a way of distinguishing themselves from China.  Myanmar, like Hong Kong, has a taste for milk tea thanks to British colonialism, while Taiwan and Thailand have trade connections to thank for their love of milk. Now, protestors in all of these places have decided that how they drink tea represents their shared pro-democracy and anti-Chinese feelings!

This community of online activists has allowed for tactics to be shared between countries, and helped to spread messages around the region. Protests in Thailand and Myanmar have borrowed Hong Kong’s “flash mob” method of protest, as well as symbols including the three fingered salute, yellow helmets, and umbrellas. Furthermore, the practice of banging pots and pans that has become a common method of protest in Myanmar has spread to neighbouring Thailand. Online, the Milk Tea Alliance hashtag has been used to support a boycott of the disney movie Mulan and to raise awareness of the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet. 

Of course, this is not the first alliance or cooperation between protestors and activists in the region. Taiwan’s sunflower movement and Hong Kong’s umbrella movement in 2014 led to closer connections between the two territories. Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, travelled to Thailand to speak to student groups in 2016. However, the fact that the Milk Tea Alliance is a primarily online movement with no leadership makes this alliance different. Although Myanmar shut off its internet and restricted facebook earlier this year, and Hong Kong has a new national-security law that limits pro-democracy movements, so far the Milk Tea Alliance has been successful at staying ahead of authorities. 

Is the Milk Tea Alliance a real thing? Is it a real Alliance? Well, according to some experts… no… it is not a real thing. Roger Huang from Macquarie University in Sydney stated that “the alliance is more imagined at this stage.” For example, the people using the hashtag online do not all hold the same views! Anti-Chinese feelings are not just held by young pro-democracy activists, but also supporters of Donald Trump and right-wing nationalism. Nationalists in India also began using the hashtag last year, but these are the same groups accused of damaging India’s democracy. The Milk Tea Alliance is also limited. It is an online hashtag. Although they can offer support online, there is little that Taiwanese, Thai, or Hong Kong activists can do in the real world to help the people of Myanmar.

Final Thought

The Milk Tea Alliance is the name given to a loose online community of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and now Myanmar. Their national taste for milky tea has been the uniting symbol for these activists. What does the future hold for the Milk Tea Alliance? Personally, I think this alliance will stay online. Each place has their own problems, issues, and difficulties. For example, Taiwan has a relatively successful and stable democracy compared to the other members of the alliance. Protests in Myanmar and Thailand are often aimed at their own governments, while Hong Kong’s problems are complicated by China. I guess that in the future the tactics and methods of protest used in each country will have to change and evolve in response to their situations. What do you think? Have you heard of the Milk Tea Alliance before? 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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