Commentary: Social media worsens growing anti-China sentiments in Southeast Asia

SINGAPORE: No nation greater than Myanmar illustrates the perils and promise of social actions in the Internet age. 

In 2018 the Myanmar army, the Tatmadaw, was accused of utilizing Facebook as a software of genocide towards the Rohingya minority, posting pretend information to fire up hatred in what the UN referred to as “a textbook instance of ethnic cleaning”.

But for the reason that Tatmadaw’s Feb 1 coup, the tables have turned. It has been caught off guard by a social media-fuelled rebellion towards the sudden re-imposition of army rule. 

The exact same platforms that have been vectors of hate speech are actually vectors of free speech that the army is determined to close down.

READ: Commentary: With violent crackdowns, is Myanmar passing the point of no return?

The Myanmar case made it into the 2020 Netflix documentary on the evils of social media, The Social Dilemma. But if one of many key belongings of the regime is geographical isolation, the complete impression of the Internet on Myanmar is just starting to play out. 

Consider how the Internet has linked protesters in Myanmar to the pan-Asian pro-democracy motion often called the Milk Tea Alliance.

The motion emerged from a “meme war” involving activists from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who used the recognition of candy milk tea drinks in their respective nations as a logo of solidarity towards the Chinese nationalist trolls they confronted on Twitter.

During the meme struggle, photos and hashtags went via an accelerated means of variation and choice till the milk tea meme, having hit the candy spot of identification plus irony, went viral.


The Milk Tea Alliance is simply the most recent meme to turn into a motion, leaping off the Internet and into the streets. Having unfold to Myanmar, it brings protesters there a robust software with which to border opposition to the Tatmadaw and to enchantment to the worldwide group.

Anti-coup night protest in Yangon

People maintain candles as they participate in an anti-coup evening protest at Hledan junction in Yangon, Myanmar, March 14, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

It comes with a set of associated symbols and techniques, such because the three-finger salute impressed by the Hunger Games motion pictures, first seen in Thailand.

It is perhaps straightforward to dismiss the Milk Tea Alliance as a Gen-Z Internet joke. But the meme is profitable in tapping into one thing deeper in the collective consciousness of a area that’s famously various and defiant of collective motion.

READ: Commentary: The Milk Tea Alliance sweeping through Thailand is a force to be reckoned with

It faucets into discontent with the regional decline of democracy and fears in regards to the rise of China as a hegemonic energy. 

There is an even bigger image past the protests in Myanmar. The nation matches a broader sample of latest years in which disparate protests in Southeast Asia, triggered by totally different occasions, exhibit undercurrents of hysteria in regards to the growing affect of China.

Protesters in Thailand calling for reform of the monarchy additionally criticise the shut alliance between the Thai generals and the Chinese Communist Party. Strikes and labour protests throughout Indonesia final yr towards an omnibus “job creation” regulation channelled concern that jobs can be outsourced to Chinese migrant employees.

milk tea alliance twitter hong kong taiwan china protests

Illustration of three types of milk tea linking arms. (Photo: Twitter/@tpagon)

China’s heavy-handed “pandemic diplomacy” in the Philippines sparked an online backlash over the South China Sea. 


At its greatest, the China dimension to those protests sublimates right into a democratic debate; at its worst, it dredges up historic prejudices and harmful tropes.

The latter occurred in Indonesia in 2019 throughout the post-election violence, when disinformation went viral online claiming that China had infiltrated troopers into the nation to place down the protests and bolster the Jokowi authorities.

READ: Young, educated and furious: A survey of Hong Kong’s protesters

The Indonesian police have been pressured to carry a press convention to debunk the claims, which had focused a number of Indonesian cops with supposed Chinese options. 

The similar trope emerged in Myanmar in latest weeks, with false claims made in viral posts on Facebook that Chinese troopers had been flown in to repress the protest motion.

The stability of proof means that China doesn’t help the coup in Myanmar – not least as a result of the federal government of Aung San Suu Kyi was comparatively pro-Beijing. But suspicions ran excessive online anyway, lending an anti-China edge to the pro-democracy protests.


The anti-Chinese sentiment shouldn’t be new to protests in Southeast Asia. But as China rises we should always count on such sentiment to develop, as outdated fears mix with new anxieties. 

Opinion polling by the Pew Research Centre signifies unfavourable views of China spiked globally even previous to the pandemic.

Thailand Myanmar Protest

Myanmar nationals dwelling in Thailand attend a candle gentle vigil for many who died in protests towards Myanmar’s army coup in entrance of the United Nations constructing in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The 2021 ISEAS State of Southeast Asia survey of policymakers, teachers, think-tankers and enterprise folks reveals that help for aligning with China versus the US has fallen, regardless of China’s intense pandemic diplomacy efforts.

While 76.3 per cent of 1,032 respondents agreed that China was essentially the most influential financial energy in the area, 72.3 per cent of them apprehensive about the identical affect.

While most governments of Southeast Asia want to profit from financial ties with China, their home populations are at greatest sceptical of China’s position.

READ: Commentary: To be president? What Myanmar military leader’s endgame may be

China thus suffers a spot between its laborious (army, financial) and tender (cultural) energy in Southeast Asia. Leading indicators of this energy hole will be detected in the protests that collect drive online, the place tender energy is in the fingers of digital natives, not political elites.   

To the extent that China’s energy hole displays an elite-popular divide, China is left susceptible to populist politics in Southeast Asia. Insurgent politicians could search to use anti-China sentiment to achieve workplace – a pattern that has emerged in Indonesia among the many Islamist opposition.

Time will inform whether or not protests in Southeast Asia cohere into democratic actions or devolve into anti-Chinese populism.

Outcomes will likely be decided, in half, by how outdated establishments reply to the brand new problem of networked protest in the Internet age. 

Dr Quinton Temby is a Visiting Fellow on the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This article was first revealed by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute as a commentary in Fulcrum.


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