October 13 2022 GM

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Glitter Meetups

Glitter Meetup is the weekly town hall of the Internet Freedom community at the IFF Square on the IFF Mattermost, at 9am EDT / 1pm UTC. Do you need an invite? Learn how to get one here.

Date: Thursday, October 13

Time: 9am EDT / 1pm UTC

Who: Xin-ling Au

Moderator: Astha

Where: On IFF Mattermost Square Channel.

Standing with the Milk Tea Alliance: Lessons in allyship

Come and learn more about the Milk Tea Alliance as we speak about the movement's original aims and objectives and how far it has come since it started two years ago, the various struggles that exist within, and how digital rights defenders can express their allyship and solidarity.

Xun-ling Au (@xun-ling on Mattermost)is an ally to a range of struggles associated with the #milkteaalliance tag. Among other projects, he's part of the group Milk Tea Alliance Friends of Myanmar & the team lead of the MilkTeaAllianceCalendar project. He has also written on the movement frequently. He is based in the UK.


Maybe we can start by telling folks about you, and your experience in the digital rights space so far?

  • For the past 2ish years (I am newish to this) I’ve yelled a lot on twitter, written a couple of things, got involved in a range of different things in a one off or supportive capacity, and launched a small project. I am a team member of the @MTA_Calendar project & help with some other Milk Tea Alliance groups.
  • In terms of the digital rights space... Erm the #milkteaAlliance is very online, so digital rights & access are enablers, threats to them are struggles we get involved in because once lost or curtailed it makes things harder.

What is the Milk Tea Alliance? Can you give us a brief background on the MTA?

  • I can only speak to my own experience & view of it, as it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me at its core “it” is a hashtag, a banner, a rallying cry. Something that kinda says here’s a thing that matters & we need help. Its origins are from a shit posting war between Thai & Chinese netizens over the girlfriend of a Thai actor implying that Taiwan is a country (it is).
  • The Thai netizens were joined by netizens from Hong Kong & Taiwan initially, someone made a joke about Milk Tea & the hashtag was born. It very quickly spread & was piggybacked on by quite a lot of activists & causes.
  • In the first month alone (April 2020) it was used by something like 15 different causes, activists in 12 countries and a lot of memes were made.
  • This put lots of groups and activists in contact with each other for the first time: relationships & connections were made. Networks formed, strengthened & added to.
  • Milk Tea Alliance accounts & groups formed. Some of this was open, some out of sight, there were some groups that were only involved on the meme side, others more serious. There are groups who either self describe as #MilkTeaAlliance or still regularly use the Tag. But also there are groups that did “affiliate” / use the tag but don’t any more.
  • It’s not really an organization, I don’t think it’s in itself a movement. I would describe that it’s maybe a loose network of relationships between activists, groups, movements & struggles. With a well known hashtag.
  • So today the term is probably more of a shorthand for the various struggles that are going on in East & South East Asia (and beyond) in most ways it is not a movement of itself but maybe more of a bridge between them.
  • For more background on the origins & what it is, you can check this threat and this article.

How did you get involved in the movement and what were your motivations?

  • I wasn’t really that active on Twitter at the beginning of 2019 but turned to it for news as the 2019 Hong Kong Anti-extradition treaty bill protests got bigger. I wanted to learn more about & support the movement. My grandfather grew up there & until the mid 90s I had some relatives there. So I had an interest in what was happening.
  • I listened, talked with people, made some friends, encountered more contexts, I didn’t really know what I could do to help…
  • I think starting with trying to listen & understand a bit first was important for me. I saw a lot of complaints that outsiders were speaking over people on the ground or misinterpreting things. One Hong Konger specifically took the time to explain what they wanted from allies & how someone like myself could help & I really took that to heart.
  • There were two aspects about the #milkteaalliance that appealed:
    • The first was seeing people & from so many different struggles & countries get involved, raising up each other’s struggle even in the midst of their own.
    • The second was that it was transnational & for me somewhat
  • What kept me in was the friends I’ve made since. Sometimes it has been hard. Some have gone dark (off the internet) over time, others have been arrested & jailed. But for me there came a point that I was doing it for my friends not just the principles or interest. For me, that is something that helped me to have the confidence to speak out.

Since you mentioned how diverse and widespread the movement is, can you tell us how exactly members of the Alliance carry out their work?

  • In terms of work, what work? We just shit posters. I jest a little but it’s actually hard to say as I think different groups work very differently.
  • I can only really talk about the corners of it I’m involved in. So one group has about 100 people in it… maybe 25 quite active people & others who dip in and out. Basically, activists will bring campaigns to the group & see who wants / can help.
  • This is everything from “We have a twitter campaign going”, “here is a news article to share”, “can people sign this petition”, “this event is coming up can you highlight it”, “can we as a group write a statement on this issue”, “we are thinking about doing something anyone got any advice”, “any advice on digital security”, “we got this problem any ideas”, “Can people help with some research”, “Can anyone translate”… like a whole range of stuff.
  • One ongoing project with a tiny project team: The Milk Tea Alliance calendar. The team searches out events that we think are relevant to the MTA & highlights them.
  • It highlights all sorts of events from protests, webinars, panels, training events, fundraisers, art exhibitions… kind of anything that is related to movements, struggles orgs that are related to the MTA in some way. (Some Caveats apply lol)
  • Can find it on Twitter @MTA_Calendar & it has a google calendar with well over 1000 events in it over the last year or so… While it’s main purpose was to highlight upcoming events, a few researchers have been looking at it to help with their work too.
  • It basically came about because there was & is A LOT going on & it’s hard to keep track of. Originally its aim was to just know what things could be attended / supported but it was realized quite quickly that it was worth making public.

What have been some of the significant struggles and moments?

  • There are a lot of key moments, the ebb & flow of each struggle is different.
  • Seeing how quickly many activists & groups started raising awareness of the situation in Myanmar following the attempted coup stands out. Lots of people rallied round very fast to highlight the issue, try to find ways to support & such.
  • Another one that I thought was quite something when many activists from the Myanmar movement started tweeting about the #ParoNacional protests in Colombia in 2021 & they also in return sent messages back. Similarly there was a huge outpouring of support for the people of Belarus from Hong Kongers (Some great art too) after the rigged elections there. See here
  • Other notable moments seeing the HK protest tactics get documented & translated into Burmese was quite incredible. In fact the whole protest tactics being shared across contexts is something powerful and has gone way beyond the #milkteaAlliance. You see some pictures and it’s like Hong Kong or Thailand or Portland USA. It’s quite amazing.

You made it a point to mention there are struggles within the #MilkTeaAlliance. Can you explain more to capture the nuance of this movement?

  • My baseline is “has the tag been used in association with it and have activists / groups from other contexts voiced some support”?.
  • Not all groups within a struggle would call themselves Alliance & sometimes the Alliance proactively supports a movement. (Also again my view, others may differ).
  • So the list highlights some struggles & some groups within those struggles. Some of it would be considered:
    • Pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong. This is now mainly spearheaded by Diaspora groups (My favorite crew are Alliance Canada Hong Kong, not even sure they would describe as MTA).
    • Thai Pro-Democracy movement / Anti -112 movement @thalugazzz @ThammasatUFTD @Thalufah
    • Various environmental issues (Climate change in Tibet / Mekong Dam campaigns)
    • The resistance of the peoples of Myanmar against the Coup (and the struggles of the ethnic groups for recognition)
    • The fight for justice & peace for the Rohingya.
    • The broad Anti-CCP struggle (Tibetan Freedom, The oppression / genocide in Xinjiang, Taiwanese right to self determination,)
    • Large swathe of LGBTQI & women’s rights groups from across South East Asia. Like @femfemfoofoo in Thailand & @ILGAAsia @ASEANSOGIE
    • Human Rights & justice groups from all over such as ABOLISYON in the Philippines, the anti-death penalty activists in Singapore.
    • Some of the Malaysian struggles noticeably #LAWAN & #KerajaanGagal & #benderaputih
    • Anti-discrimination groups like @cubadengardulu

Is there an instance where some kind of issue or struggle doesn't become part of the alliance? or is it quite inclusive in that way?

  • There are some that don't fit with some of the broad values of anti-authoritarian or are contrary to human rights.

You describe yourself as being in the ally rather than diasporic category: could you explain both categories and their differences?

  • An Ally is fully from outside the context.
  • Diaspora has more direct links to it both personally, culturally & likely ethnically. It’s not always a good distinction but I mainly didn’t want to present it as something I’m not.
  • While both might play similar roles, when it comes to struggles, they are often perceived differently both from within the struggle & from outside.
  • My background & family history is quite mixed. I'm Khasi / Chinese (Han & Other?) / English. My grandfather grew up in HK. My father was born in India but I’ve lived my life in the UK. So while I have some diasporic links to some struggles, I felt it was better to self-describe as an ally especially as I while I started out supporting the movement in Hong Kong, I fairly quickly learned about & expanded to more aspects. Not that that has stopped me being called a Hong Konger, a Malaysian & more by people (mainly journalists using my tweets in their stories lol).

Is there anything you want to say about the transnational nature of this movement, and how it has impacted movements beyond Asia? you mentioned activists in Iran, are there other instances where that's happened?

  • I think the transnational nature has been baked into it from the outset. I think as people learned more about the similarities between struggles, the more they could relate to each other, the more sympathy & empathy grew. I think there is also an aspect of “protest swapping” where activists speak out on the other issues where it is too dangerous to talk about their own contexts & trust that others will do the same & people will see the similarities.
  • Struggles in Iran, Belarus, Ukraine, Colombia, Nigeria, Kashmir, that of the Kurdish peoples & Palestinians & more have been mentioned at some point. How much interaction there has been varies.

It's been two years since #milkteaalliance became so big, what do you think the future holds for the MTA? Is it still relevant and impactful two years on?

  • The hashtag will disappear & reappear from time to time. I don’t think that’s too important. Commentators have already declared the #MilkTeaAlliance died like twice or three times… As the Hong Kong Umbrella movement in 2014 said “we’ll be back”.
  • I think the links built, the sheer number of people “activated”, the fact that some Milk Tea Alliance activists are becoming staff or in some cases getting into boards of established CSOs (years before usually would happen), will have an impact for years to come, the networks & friendships built will last. It’s kind of supercharged a generation, giving them connections & links with others that they wouldn’t have had before. It spreads learning, ideas & solidarity.
  • For a lot of the groups that have formed it will depend on if they decide to build something, if they can find the resources too… or they become part of something more established or fade. We will see on that. Anyone sitting on any funding to support groups transitioning from groups to orgs please reach out haha
  • Just today Sam Yan Press held an online event & poster campaign in #SolidarityWithJoshuaWong

What are the main public channels/accounts related to the milk tea alliance that we can follow and elevate?

  • The most active #MilkTeaAlliance accounts at the moment are:
    • @MTA_Museum
    • @MTA_Calendar
    • @MTA_PH
    • @IDmilktea
  • The #Revotober campaign on twitter & Facebook many artists raising awareness of what is happening in Myanmar with new prompts & artworks every day. I think it’s a great way of getting the message out there. Myself & a few others are working to archive all the art work to make sure it’s kept. Hopefully we aren’t the only people doing it… Redundancy is good.
  • Personally, I am trying to push this fundraising drive for the “Karen Women’s Organization”, they work in Karen state in south east Myanmar. Supporting internally displaced people. They do a lot of cross border work around the Thai – Myanmar border. They got a match donation scheme going for the next couple of months.
  • Lastly & to end: ‘Moreover, the existence of this alliance implies that “you are not alone” to the activists." This I feel is the most important thing about solidarity. Each of us might not be able to help much but if we do what we can, we will make a difference together

How can any one support or collaborate with #MilkTeaAlliance?

  • Help raise awareness of the various struggles, social media is really good for this, but also in everyday life where there is opportunity, give activists, especially young, marginalized ones your time, Listen to them. Amplify them. As individuals pay attention, sign those random petitions, put pressure on your governments, and donate to campaigns. Trying to learn more about the contexts helps too.
  • In terms of collaboration: reaching out to various activists on projects you probably will find those with the capacity to get involved in something. Although not always & trust can take awhile to build
  • If you see relevant events: Please DM them on twitter to @MTA_Calendar we really rely on people letting us know what is going on. The team is quite small so we miss a lot.
  • For organizations: if you have some specialisms, share it, if you have any capacity to offer it, make your training & resources available if they are relevant. Offer up spaces, platforms.
  • One thing that is lacking is suitable & sufficient mental health support for many activists (not just a #milkteaalliance issue). For many they got dropped into the deep end, seen/experienced some terrible stuff, been quite traumatized by it. However many services are not in suitable languages or relevant or culturally sensitive so it can be a challenge.