Democracy activists in Thailand and Myanmar look to create bridges between their movements—a meaningful gesture even if the road to ending military rule starts and ends at home.
By Zachary Frye
In the weeks following the Myanmar military’s coup on February 1, Asia’s online pro-democracy movement known as the Milk Tea Alliance saw a surge in new activism.
Originally a movement of solidarity among online activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, the Alliance has seen its reach grow following the coup in Naypyidaw.
As street protests for democracy continue apace in both Thailand and Myanmar—countries that share both a border and outsized military influence in government—an affinity between the two movements is bringing activists closer together.
In Thailand, a country home to a large Burmese migrant worker population, it is increasingly common to see the Myanmar flag being flown at pro-democracy protests. Internet and social media, meanwhile, are enabling demonstrators to share memes, experiences and protest tactics across borders.
Activists seem eager to expound the benefits of international solidarity, especially the argument that broader movements for democracy put a spotlight on the international consensus against coups and state-sanctioned violence.
As for the direct pursuit of the activists’ goals however, a balanced view on the efficacy of cross-border activism is warranted. Despite the online noise, there is little evidence, at least so far, that online activism can effect sustained policy change in the region, let alone regime change.
In Hong Kong, for instance, authorities with pro-Beijing sympathies are jailing dissidents and tightening their hold on the future of the city despite activists’ ongoing movement for self-determination. Isolated protests continue in Bangkok as the government jails democracy activists, with little sign that the military is losing its grip on power. The status of Taiwan as a Chinese territory remains contested as military tensions with Beijing rise.
In Myanmar, the military is setting itself up to maintain long-term control of the country. Although there are promises of future elections, the generals may aim to take a page out of the Thai junta’s playbook and use their time in power to push constitutional changes that strengthen their influence.
While these realities don’t necessarily negate the efficacy of online movements in certain contexts, such as creating popular support for causes, activists and the broader public should be cognizant of both the limits and potential of movements like the Milk Tea Alliance.
Online activism can be a powerful tool but it’s not a panacea
As digital activism becomes more common across the globe, some researchers argue that a strong online presence is a vital aspect of viable social movements.
In their 2020 book #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, academics from the University of Pennsylvania and Northeastern University in the United States argue that the power of social media activism lies in how historically marginalized groups can make their voices heard, build communities and mobilize dissent.
As for evidence that online activism can have real-world consequences, Egypt’s 2011 uprising is likely the most powerful example. Spurred on by police brutality, corruption and political repression, Egyptians organized large demonstrations in the capital mostly through social media and eventually brought about the government’s resignation.
Some researchers, however, note that online activism also has its drawbacks. If too many people support a cause online but fail to make meaningful efforts offline—a trend known as “slacktivism”—there can be a disconnect between the movement’s impacts in the digital world and the real world.
Another problem revolves around the sustainability of the cause. Popular movements for regime change often burn bright at the beginning but become fragmented and lose momentum in the longer term. Even if they meet short-term goals, the hard work of coalition-building and stable government are often more elusive.
The aftermath of the 2011 protests in Egypt, for example, has brought years of political upheaval and the reemergence of authoritarianism. Following another round of protests in 2013, the military took control. The coup’s leader, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, remains the county’s president after being elected by popular vote in 2014 and 2018.
The 2018 elections were criticized for the barring of several high-profile candidates over procedural irregularities. Sisi later won the election with over 97% of the vote.
Online activism with broader pressure from media and civil society can impact policy
As for Southeast Asia, although there are few indications that the Milk Tea Alliance is helping pro-democracy activists achieve their goals, there are signs that online activism is making a difference on a smaller scale.
In Myanmar, people are using social media to criticize violent responses to the anti-military protests, in which at least 550 civilians have been killed by security forces, leading to widespread international condemnation.
Social media users in Thailand are also helping take up Myanmar’s cause. In late March the Thai government was accused of forcing back Karen refugees trying to cross the border after the military carried out bombing raids against anti-government forces. One tweet on the topic by a prominent Thai political activist was picked up by the Milk Tea Alliance network and shared over 10,000 times.
The tweet featured a video showing refugees from Myanmar’s Karen State fleeing toward Thailand after Myanmar’s armed forces bombed the surrounding area. The video showed the refugees, including women and children, attempt the journey flanked by soldiers and barbed wire.
As attention to the subject grew, including from traditional media outlets and human rights groups, Prime Minister and former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha suggested that the refugees would be allowed in if the violence continued.
In the week following the bombings in Myanmar’s Karen State, reports indicated that some two dozen refugee reception centers were set up along Thailand’s border—a sign that the country is taking steps to deal with a possible influx of refugees.
Ending military rule in Southeast Asia will require popular domestic movements
As the Milk Tea Alliance grows to match authoritarianism in the region, so does the movement’s visibility abroad. The story of the Alliance has been picked up by international media outlets, due in part to the savvy and endearing tactic of focusing on tea as a cultural symbol that brings the region’s activists together.
Twitter itself is also making its sympathies known. The American social media platform announced on April 7 that it had released a Milk Tea Alliance emoji in light of the one-year anniversary of the movement.
While attention to and support for pro-democracy activism should be welcomed as a nice morale boost, it will likely only be consequential insofar as it strengthens the resolve of pro-democracy supporters on the ground.
Although memes and online symbols can be powerful tools to spur popular dissent, combating authoritarianism is a much harder task, especially when the authoritarians have guns.
This doesn’t mean that online activism is worthless; silence in the digital realm would likely only abdicate the space to anti-democratic groups, which are also growing throughout the region.
But the most successful movements for democracy in the region, like Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution in 2007 and Indonesia’s transition toward democracy post-Suharto, have depended on widespread support from both the public and influential leaders within the countries themselves.
The Milk Tea Alliance has a role to play in collating the region’s democratic ambitions online but it will be leaders and activists on the ground who do the hard work of creating a viable and sustainable democratic future.