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By Karen Lee
Following the February 1 coup, Myanmar’s netizens became the latest to join the #MilkTeaAlliance, an online collective of pro-democracy youth across Asia.
Drawing from the protest movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and neighboring Thailand, youth activists in Myanmar have leveraged their intimate knowledge of digital tools to protest authoritarianism. Inspired by the movement in Myanmar, the nearly year-long protests in Thailand against that country’s military-led government have gained renewed momentum.
The rise of digital activism across Southeast Asia in the past half-decade has featured a new generation of protesters leveraging social media and co-opting popular symbols to attract international coverage and garner sympathy for their causes.
Although the governments they are fighting against have also used these same tools to restrict protest activities and free speech, the digital imprint of the Milk Tea Alliance in the region ensures that these protests will not easily be forgotten.
The Power of Symbols
Amid the grim footage of military violence against civilians in Myanmar, protesters’ satirical signs have made their own headlines. Often written in English and ranging from “Use condoms, don’t let people like Min Aung Hlaing be born again” to “I want Kim Nam Joon [a rapper from the popular K-pop group BTS], not a dictatorship,” these statements have attracted attention from international netizens by using humor and referencing pop culture.
Activists have also proactively published social media content in multiple languages using the hashtags #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar and #WhatsHappeningInThailand to boost coverage of events on the ground.
In Thailand, protesters have drawn parallels between their struggle against the military-led government and other literary narratives to mobilize support. In Thailand, human rights lawyer Anon Nampha was the first to publicly question the monarchy’s role in Thai politics during an August 2020 protest with the theme “Harry Potter vs. He Who Must Not Be Named.”
In a country where ordinary citizens have been jailed for offenses as minor as criticizing the late king’s dog, this was seen as a turning point that emboldened protesters to openly call for reforming the monarchy. Anon was arrested shortly after the protest and charged with lèse-majesté and sedition on February 9. Although he is currently being held without bail alongside three other protest leaders, demonstrators have continued to defy a ban on public gatherings to call for their release.
The three-finger salute from the bestselling book and movie series The Hunger Games is the movement’s most famously co-opted symbol. The gesture first emerged in Thai protests after the 2014 military coup and has since spread to the recent demonstrations in Myanmar.
The country’s envoy to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, even flashed the salute during his final speech to the UN General Assembly on February 27 before he was fired by the junta. It has become a common fixture in Thai and Burmese protests as a symbol of solidarity and defiance against authoritarian governments and political elites.
While past protests have been dismissed as internal matters, the scope and coverage of these demonstrations on social media have succeeded in raising awareness and concern at the international level. On March 10, the UN Security Council released a statement unanimously calling for a reversal of the coup and condemning the military’s violence against protesters. Even China, which has often used its seat on the council to shield Myanmar from condemnation and initially referred to the coup as a cabinet reshuffle, stressed the importance of “de-escalation, diplomacy, and dialogue.” Since the United Nations has traditionally refrained from intervening in member countries’ domestic affairs, the statement sent a strong sign to the military that the international community will not turn a blind eye to the events in Myanmar.
The Turn to Digital Repression
As the protests in Myanmar and Thailand have inspired each other with similar tactics and symbols, the militaries of the two countries have also responded in similar ways: with more advanced digital surveillance and online repression.
Since the junta’s ban on Facebook following the coup, protesters in Myanmar have learned to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access the internet and mask their IP addresses, which can be used to an extent to track protesters’ location and identities.
However, a proposed cybersecurity bill would criminalize the use of VPNs and give the military unlimited access to private data.
Additionally, documents from human rights group Justice for Myanmar show that purchases of dual-use surveillance technology from Israeli, U.S., and European firms increased over the past two years as the Myanmar military maintained control over spending for law enforcement and security-related issues. In larger cities like Yangon and Mandalay, protesters fear that the regime may use Chinese facial recognition technology and CCTV footage to track and identify them.
In Thailand, human rights advocates have raised concerns that the Computer Crime Act of 2016 and the Cybersecurity Act of 2019 give the government unchecked power to monitor online data and target users who post any criticism of the military or monarchy. Lèse-majesté prosecutions have soared since last year: according to Thai watchdog iLaw, at least 55 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since November 2020, many for defamatory comments made online. The Thai military has also conducted targeted misinformation campaigns online. In November 2020, a leaked briefing for the Thai Army showed military personnel receiving training on how to use Twitter to boost pro-monarchy hashtags and attack pro-democracy netizens.
The Future of the Digital Revolution
The growth of these protest movements online has caused social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to reconsider their role in providing and disseminating information. Facebook, which was criticized in 2018 for not doing enough to curb online hate speech directed at Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, took down all accounts linked to the country’s military on February 25. This is significant in Myanmar, where Facebook is largely synonymous with the internet for most citizens. In Thailand, Twitter removed 926 fake accounts that it attributed to the military in October 2020, and Facebook took down 185 military-linked accounts and groups in March 2021.
It is difficult to predict the future of these protest movements. After nearly a year, the Thai demonstrations have not succeeded in bringing about Prayuth’s resignation, constitutional amendments, or reform of the monarchy. With the arrests of multiple protest leaders, the Thai government is likely hoping that the protests will peter out. The Myanmar demonstrations have also called for the democratically-elected government to be reinstated, but the military has only doubled down on violent suppression. As of April 1, the death toll has surpassed 500.
Nevertheless, the digitization of protest movements has allowed activists to stay in contact with each other and their supporters abroad, provide first-hand accounts of government abuses, and create a historical record for future generations. By mobilizing widespread support and speaking out on issues that were previously taboo, the Milk Tea Alliance in Southeast Asia has proven that democracy in the region is not a lost cause.
Karen Lee is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.