"Milk Tea Alliance activists will always stand together" (2021) illustration by @tamyumkung (courtesy the artist)

Mass protests have been taking place across Myanmar since the military, led by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, overthrew the democratically elected government on February 1, 2021. The country had been ruled by an oppressive military dictatorship from 1962 until 2011, a period marked by brutality, genocide and isolation. Political reforms under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi slowly moved the country towards democracy since then, but this progress has been violently halted by the military coup. Hundreds of people, including children, have been killed since February first. But in the face of this immediate danger, people around the country have taken to the streets and to cyberspace to demand that democracy be restored.

Protestors in Yangon, Myanmar (March 2021) (photo by Andrew PaKip via Pexels)

Many of the signs held up by Myanmar’s protestors in the pro-democracy movement are in English, signifying how much the country has opened up to the world after being isolated for decades. The signs also highlight the protestors’ desire to appeal to an international audience. Protestors use wit, humor and innuendo to mock the military junta: For example, several signs use the Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion hit “WAP” as abbreviation for We Are Protesting Peacefully. Other signs read “My ex is bad, but Myanmar military is worse”; “Need soup, no coup”; and “So bad, even introverts are here.” Protestors are using every possible tool to express their freedom and reject the coup peacefully, for example through the hitting of metal pots every night to, in their words, “ward off the devil” by opposing the dictatorship. Photos have been circulated on social media platforms of inventive local grassroots strikes, such as “Garbage Strike,” “Clapping Strike” and “Silent Strike.” They are complemented by other physical forms of creative expression: murals, poetry, video installations, performances, and even so-called Lennon Walls are employed to raise awareness and channel motivation among protestors. The use of art and humor has generated a collective identity in a country marked by social disparity.

MiMi Aye, “CDM Pyit-Tine-Htaung for #EasterEggStrike” (2021) (photo courtesy @meemalee)

Online, the protests are led by a young generation of netizens who use social media to raise their voice through artistic expression. Memes, slogans, symbols, cartoons, gifs, tiktok videos, and rap songs are employed to mobilize support within and across borders. This expression is particularly challenging due to the military ban on internet access and social media platforms. The movement has gained traction with the use of hashtags, such as #WhatsHappeninginMyanmar, #RejectMilitaryCoup and #SaveMyanmar. In addition, special hashtags have been created to accompany themed protest days, such as #EasterEggStrike and #MarchingShoeStrike.

Despite internet blackouts and censorship, artists are on the frontline of the protests, giving a voice to the movement. Online art collectives, such as Raise Three Fingers, were founded by artists and creatives in Myanmar to provide a platform for local and global artists in support of the movement. Here, art is often shared anonymously as the military are known to hunt down those who dare to defy its rule. Several of these online art collectives, such as Yangon.design, have made their designs freely available for protestors. Others share their art on special Facebook groups to provide protestors with artwork for signs and t-shirts. Yangon-based artist Khin Zaw Latt told Artnet News: “Art is not only a tool against the government, but also a record to reflect on the recent situation. It is a part of history.”

The protestors in Myanmar have been inspired by the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong (2019–now) and Thailand (2020–now), where protestors have also capitalized on new, expressive methods made possible by the digital age. Through these connections, they have affiliated themselves with the “Milk Tea Alliance”: an expression of cross-border solidarity in fear of China’s authoritarianism, uniting like-minded netizens in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Myanmar, and beyond. The online campaign started in April 2020 after a Thai-Chinese meme war on Twitter, when a Thai actor and his girlfriend were accused of supporting democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwanese independence. Protestors from each of the four countries have shown support for each other’s cause, for example through the creation of “solidarity protest art.” Recent viral use of the accompanying hashtag even had Twitter creating a special emoji for the Milk Tea Alliance, lending greater credibility to the movement and stimulating global recognition and support. The three-fingered salute, popularized by the Hunger Games film series, has become their shared signal of resistance, symbolizing the demand for equality, freedom and democracy. As a result, it has become a common theme both in online and in-person protest art.

“True love is democracy — a couple from Myanmar” (2021) illustration by @tamyumkung (courtesy the artist)

For these contemporary protest movements, the use of social media helps to spread information locally, especially when communication is stymied by internet outages and censorship. (Protestors have had to resort to increasingly resourceful means to circumvent these.) These platforms also help mobilize people and connect protectors across borders: Hong Kong and Thai social media users have advised Myanmar protestors on how to stay safe physically and digitally, while the creative Myanmar strikes have inspired those in Thailand. Most notably, the creative bravery of this new generation of protestors has helped reach a global audience ready to listen, thus fundamentally altering the organization of protests. Instead of formal leadership, these peaceful protest movements are marked by cooperation and solidarity, creating togetherness and community across borders, cultures and beliefs via protest art.

While drastic change is clearly needed before “everything will be okay,” the fight for good governance, human rights and democracy deserves global recognition. The Milk Tea Alliance has harnessed creativity to effect positive change. Their art screams hope for a future defined by solidarity, democracy, freedom, and social justice. It is now time for the international community to support this new generation of young activists in their efforts.  

Emiline Smith is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland (UK). Her research concerns the trafficking, protection and repatriation of cultural and natural resources in Asia. Follow...