It was the largest protest in Thailand since the 2014 coup: an estimated 50,000 people demonstrated for their basic rights in the heart of Bangkok last weekend. The atmosphere was lively: ravers danced to techno music, country bands played street hits and the smell of grilled meat floated overhead.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, the mostly young demonstrators risk a lot. Anyone who rebels in Thailand against the powerful in the palace and the military must expect harassment and harsh punishments. According to media reports, the police are already investigating 16 of the demonstrators over the weekend for lese majesty. It has up to 15 years in prison.
Thailand is the second Asian arena, after Hong Kong, this year where authoritarian and liberal forces are fighting an open conflict. Thailand’s youth want to fight for new freedom. The Hong Kong people wanted to protect their rights. But both movements, as well as the Pan-Asian solidarity, show the deep longing of young Asians for freedom and participation.
On the surface, things don’t look good for liberal democracy in Asia. China is gradually expanding its sphere of influence and playing dear uncle for the autocrats in the region. In Cambodia, Hun Sen is gagging the opposition; in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is undermining the rule of law.
But dissatisfaction is growing. By exchanging information on social media and having access to new sources of information, young people are made aware of the injustices on their continent. China may be admired for its economic strength. But the authoritarian style of government and the imperialist demeanor of the Communist Party put off young people in neighboring countries.
The young generation’s thirst for freedom is also noticeable in elections. It was only this year that Taiwan’s voters confirmed Liberal President Tsai Ing-wen in office. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, too, democratic candidates and parties recently scored points – especially with young voters. It wasn’t always enough for government participation, but the trend is clear.
Resistance to the autocratic elite is particularly fierce online. A pan-Asian, democratic alliance has emerged there. Millions of Twitter users have used the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance in the past few months. The name comes from the popularity of sweet tea drinks in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, where most of the hashtag users come from.
“The anti-Beijing sentiment has become part of the Thais’ struggle against authoritarianism”
Under the hashtag, Twitter users criticize pretty much everything that they dislike about the politics of the Communist Party of China: From its aggressive actions in the South China Sea to controversial dam projects on the Mekong, the lifeline of Southeast Asia.
The actions on the Internet have received a strong response in the offline world – and the anger is often directed not only against the Communist Party in China, but against its own government. Again and again you see signs with the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance at the demos in Bangkok. “The anti-Beijing sentiment has become part of the Thais’ struggle against authoritarianism,” Thai political scientist Wasana Wongsurawat told Reuters.
The committed youth movement is now also putting economic pressure on. Western corporations can also feel this. The most recent example is the boycott of the Disney film Mulan. Reason for the anger: Leading actress Liu Yifei had praised the brutal Hong Kong police. The film is also set in Xinjiang, the province where the Communist Party locked millions of Uyghurs in camps. In the credits, Disney thanks for the good cooperation with the local authorities.
Disney’s CFO Christine McCarthy had to admit that the boycott calls against the film “caused some problems for the company”. The US company did not apologize for the statements made by its leading actresses – probably out of fear of the Chinese government. Many young people in Asia are more courageous.
Frederic Spohr is the office manager of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Thailand and Myanmar, based in Bangkok. Twitter: @fspohr