SINGAPORE — Benja Apan hoped to study engineering in the United States and get a job with Elon Musk. She’s now facing six decades in prison for insulting the king of Thailand.
Ei Thinzar Maung had dreams of winning a seat in Myanmar’s parliament and championing the rights of women and ethnic minorities. She was beaten and arrested four years ago, and is now hiding in the jungle from a military junta that’s killed and imprisoned thousands of her peers.
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Ivan Choi was studying chemistry in Hong Kong when he joined a protest movement calling for more freedom from China. He’s since fled to Taiwan, where he lives in exile and is not likely to ever see his family or home again.
The three activists — all in their 20s — once seemed destined for promising lives. But they dared to challenge some of the most entrenched powers in Asia, becoming fugitives with shattered career ambitions and persistent traumas. Their stories reflect the seismic changes sweeping Asia, where voices for democracy have been suppressed by corruption, growing inequality and the widening influence of the so-called China model and its blend of repression and prosperity.
Much of Asia’s youth is coming of age at a time when civil liberties are in retreat. Many are jailed, tortured, have been killed and have disappeared. In Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar, opposition parties are no longer tolerated, open dissent has been outlawed and protests violently put down. Cambodia’s long-standing dictator Hun Sen abolished his political rivals, Laos remains a one-party communist state and Vietnam, despite all its economic advancements, has stifled freedoms.
“Everything is going backward,” said Ei Thinzar Maung, 27, who spoke over video from an undisclosed location in a bare room with plain white walls. “I just want to live a normal life, but I can’t. For our future — for our independence — we have to fight.”
Even the region’s democracies are under threat. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has incited ethno-nationalistic fervor. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has assailed independent media and presided over thousands of extrajudicial killings. Malaysia has degenerated into a political morass after a landmark election in 2018 raised hopes of a progressive future. Singapore constrains opposition parties. And Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, has failed to rein in endemic corruption and religious polarization.
It is a bleak, and some say, futile outlook for a generation of idealistic and liberal-minded young people living in the shadow of an authoritarian China with an assertive regional reach. Yet hope persists. Armed with technology and the warp-speed language of pop culture, the protest generation has galvanized support across borders with indelible gestures like the defiant three-finger salute borrowed from the dystopian “Hunger Games” films.
They’ve coalesced online through the Milk Tea Alliance, a grass-roots social media campaign that brings together a shared love for the pan-Asian beverage and an enmity for autocratic regimes. The campaign — with its own Twitter emoji — is a mostly symbolic reincarnation of global youth movements including those that arose around the Arab Spring. But it has united and mobilized the young in ways that would have been impossible for their parents and grandparents in capitals stretching from Bangkok to Manila.
Unlike older generations, many of today’s young people have experienced free elections, upward mobility and access to the internet and the outside world. Preserving and advancing freedoms will become a lifelong battle on a continent that’s home to 60% of the world’s population and is poised to shape global affairs — wars, climate change, economies — for decades to come.
“Democracy is in decline across the region, but the young generation provides a silver lining for democratic renewal,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Young people fundamentally need a more open environment for the lifestyle they intend to lead. That’s why, 10 years from now or 20 years from now, we may see a democratic resurgence. It’s taking a beating now, but it’s not out.”
Benja Apan was 15 when the commander of the Thai army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, appeared on television and declared the nation under military control.
The 2014 takeover marked the 13th coup in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, yet it barely registered in Benja’s home in Nakhon Ratchasima, a rural city 130 miles from Bangkok surrounded by sugar and tapioca fields.
Despite hailing from a hotbed of political opposition, Benja’s family members were royalists. They viewed the military as guardians of the sacred monarchy. Benja never imagined thinking differently. She was a diligent student focused on earning an engineering degree. Nothing interested her more than space exploration. She admired Musk and often stayed awake in the middle of the night to watch the latest launch of his SpaceX rockets.
It wasn’t until Benja moved to Bangkok for her studies and befriended student activists that she began questioning why Thailand had no aerospace industry of its own or why it was trapped in a cycle of political instability.
She learned about disappeared human rights workers and was stunned when King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne in 2016 and enriched himself overnight by seizing control of the Crown Property Bureau, a state fund that’s conservatively valued at $70 billion.
Her political awakening accelerated in 2019 when Prayuth, who had already grabbed power in a coup, extended his role as prime minister after the general election. The military had amended the constitution to ensure his victory. The following year, a court dissolved a new opposition party called Future Forward that had energized Benja and the country’s young people by advocating an end to the dominance of the monarchy, the military and the business elite.
Benja and thousands of other students swarmed the streets of the nation’s capital demanding a new constitution and parliament. Then the unthinkable happened: the protesters aimed their scorn at the king, an eccentric figure who seemingly spent more time at his redoubt in the Bavarian Alps than his home country.
Benja attended a rally where demonstrators wore crop tops to poke fun at the sexagenarian monarch, who was famously photographed once baring his midriff in a skimpy shirt while roaming a German mall. Others began dressing as Harry Potter characters, likening the king, protected by a lese-majeste law that imposes a 15-year prison term on anyone who disparages him, to Lord Voldemort.
The three-finger salute swept Bangkok. Benja felt emboldened enough to hold a rally last October outside the German Embassy calling for an investigation of the king. She gained more attention in January when a security guard slapped her as she livestreamed a protest at an upscale mall.
“Thailand is not a healthy country,” said Benja, 22, speaking from her dormitory at Thammasat University, a school remembered for a student massacre in 1976 that still haunts the pro-democracy movement.
“They launched the coup to seize power,” said Benja, who speaks with an impish grin and wears oversized glasses and a childish fringe that belie a ferocious determination. “They changed the constitution to make the rules benefit them and make [Prayuth] prime minister.”
The demonstrations, the most spirited Thailand has seen in decades, eventually went silent with the spread of COVID-19, the fracturing of protest groups and the arrest of organizers. Benja says she has no regrets. Her generation challenged the king in a way that can’t be undone.
“Young people cannot tolerate this same old society,” said Benja. “In the past, we were not taught to have critical thinking. We have been blocked from information. ... The world has changed now and younger people start to question things more. Sooner or later, they will grow up. And the country has to move forward.”
But that passion has come at a price.
“I think I have to face jail for a maximum of 60 years,” she said, counting off on her fingers the lese-majeste, sedition and unlawful assembly charges mounted against her. She remains in school and is fighting the charges with the help of a human rights lawyer. “If I confess, it could go down to 30 years.”
During the early months of the Thailand protests, Benja and other students poured over online video of demonstrations in Hong Kong. They were inspired by the ability of protesters there to scatter at the sight of police and then emerge somewhere else unscathed — a tactic defined by the creed to “be like water.”
Ivan Choi, 22, was part of that water. He was in his second year at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University studying chemistry when the protests erupted in spring 2019 over a proposed extradition bill that many feared would give mainland China another way to impose its authority over the semiautonomous city and its democratic ambitions.
(Choi previously spoke to The Times for a podcast using the pseudonym Daniel to avoid drawing attention from authorities in Hong Kong. He says he no longer fears reprisals.)
Choi had designs of entering the middle class, improving on his upbringing as the son of a single mother who worked her way up from housecleaner to hotel manager. But the more China tried to impose its will on Hong Kong, the less Choi believed he had a future in the city of 7 million.
The cost of living was soaring, propelled in part by the steady arrival of new residents from the mainland. Affordable housing was scarce and the Cantonese culture he grew up with was being overshadowed by calls to be more patriotic and loyal to Beijing. A way of life was unraveling.
Choi has been suspicious of China since he was a teenager learning about the June 4, 1989, massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He was reminded of the crackdown each year at vigils held in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, one of the clearest signs that the city was different from China, where discussion of June 4 is forbidden.
By summer 2019, Hong Kong’s demonstrations grew more violent as police began deploying tear gas. Middle-aged professionals began to fade from the rallies, replaced by high school and college students clad in black wearing hard hats, goggles and gas masks. They were called “front-liners” and Choi fit right in.
On the night of July 1, his life would change forever. Choi was among dozens of frustrated front-line demonstrators who felt peaceful protest had failed. The group stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and ransacked the building, smashing portraits of pro-Beijing politicians and spray-painting slogans on the walls like “Hong Kong is not China.”
Police drove them out, and in the chaos, Choi’s leg was injured by a bean bag projectile. He was dragged away. His appearance in news reports meant police would be able to identify him. With an arrest imminent, his friends urged him to pack his bags and flee.
Within days Choi had booked a flight to Taiwan, a self-governing island at odds with China that was granting refuge to protesters. His mom saw him off at the airport, but he never told her the real reason he was leaving, just that he was going for his studies. Choi looked out the window of the plane as it took off. He told himself it was probably the last time he would see Hong Kong.
“All I remember is crying from my home to the airport. As long as the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] exists, I can’t go back,” said Choi, who learned police had come to his home in search of him weeks after he left the city.
Those early months in Taiwan were the hardest. He was racked with guilt watching livestreams of protesters clashing with riot police. The trauma from weeks on the front line triggered recurring nightmares of his friends being corralled and beaten by officers. After a while, it was easier to just stay awake. He developed insomnia and his health deteriorated.
His condition has improved with the help of medication. But Hong Kong has become unrecognizable. The national security law imposed by Beijing last year has all but extinguished dissent in the Asian financial center. Journalists have been silenced, critics jailed and peaceful demonstrations — including the annual June 4 vigil — effectively banned. More than 10,000 people have been arrested in connection with the unrest.
Choi has embraced his new home, an island 100 miles off the coast of China where the former Chinese Nationalist government fled in 1949 after being defeated by the communists. He’s studying the territory’s history and earning a degree in political science so he can advocate for democracy in the region. Taiwan’s pro-rights activists form an instrumental part of the Milk Tea Alliance — not the least because the island is the origin of boba milk tea.
But Taiwan’s future is fraught. Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary, risking a conflict that could draw in the U.S. If that happens, Choi says he can’t bear running again.
“I escaped once,” he said. “I went away from my war and I won’t go away for the second time. So if that moment comes, I will stand up and fight.”
Students at Ei Thinzar Maung’s high school in Mandalay called her “rebel” when she first arrived from Kachin state, a border region where war between Myanmar’s army and ethnic insurgents has raged for years.
She had no intention of living up to her nickname. Ei Thinzar Maung felt fortunate to be growing up at a time of unprecedented change in Myanmar. A military dictatorship was loosening its grip on power for the first time in 50 years. Political prisoners like the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi were being released. Internet censorship was relaxed. There were suddenly freedoms she had never known.
Ei Thinzar Maung, the first in her family to graduate from university, decided to seize the opportunity by standing up for Myanmar’s marginalized ethnic minorities. She led a 400-mile march from Mandalay to Yangon in 2015 to protest a national education law that excluded ethnic languages and restricted student unions. When it ended, she was beaten by police and thrown in jail for more than a year.
It was a hint of what was to come. Myanmar’s brutal military, known as the Tatmadaw, had agreed to share power, but it had never truly surrendered control. It commanded the nation’s security apparatus and could block changes to Myanmar’s constitution.
When the Tatmadaw began claiming fraud this year after another humiliating defeat in the general election, Ei Thinzar Maung sensed the generals would lash out. Her fears were realized in the predawn hours of Feb. 1. Soldiers fanned out across the country arresting members of the civilian government led by Suu Kyi. The Tatmadaw upended 10 years of fragile democratic reforms and restored military rule.
Ei Thinzar Maung still feels the collective fury that rang out each night in towns and cities across Myanmar as citizens banged pots and pans to protest the coup.
Thousands of young people, unburdened by the traumas of crushed uprisings in 1988 and 2007, took to the streets. They held flash mobs blocking traffic. They marched with signs in English designed to go viral, including one that read: “I want a relationship not a dictatorship.” They took cues from Thailand by flashing the three-finger salute and they adopted Hong Kong’s leaderless protest strategy to ensure the army couldn’t blunt their momentum with key arrests. Attention was sustained overseas with the help of the Milk Tea Alliance hashtag.
Slowly at first, and then with horrifying speed, the Tatmadaw showed how little it had changed. Young protesters were gunned down indiscriminately. Detainees were raped, tortured and beaten to death. By mid-July, more than 7,000 civilians had been arrested and more than 940 killed, according to the Myanmar-based Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners.
A warrant was issued for Ei Thinzar Maung’s arrest. She had led a massive protest of female garment workers in Yangon and urged civil servants to go on strike. Like other wanted activists, she fled for the Thai border to seek refuge in rebel-held territory.
“They’d kill me if I were ever captured,” said Ei Thinzar Maung, whose life of activism began when she was named the first female president of her high school student union.
As the child of merchants, Ei Thinzar Maung says she grew up comfortably in Mogaung, a northern city near the border of China key for its rail link. Yet she’s always been troubled by injustice. Her father’s pursuit of a university degree was upended by a crackdown on students in 1988. She saw how her childhood friends had no career prospects and fell into drugs because they were shunned as ethnic minorities.
That worldview has led Ei Thinzar Maung to take unpopular stands. She’s one of the few activists in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, to speak out against Suu Kyi and her government’s complicity in the Tatmadaw slaughter and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Muslim minority Rohingya starting in 2015.
Her life is now a blur of mountain hide-outs and grizzled rebel soldiers — at least until peace is restored. That could be years away, if ever. Fighting between the Tatmadaw and ethnic insurgents and militias is flaring. Thousands have been displaced. Western sanctions have had little effect. China’s tacit recognition of the junta has proved to matter more.
If Myanmar gets another chance at democracy, Ei Thinzar Maung says she’s prepared. She belongs to a new civilian government formed in exile in April that seeks to break the country of 54 million people out of its cycle of violence and despair. Her generation will never accept the junta, she said, because of their brief, if flawed, taste of freedom.
“Our generation grew up under democracy and this is our strength,” Ei Thinzar Maung said. “We have felt freedom. We were able to communicate with the outside world. We had so many hopes and dreams. We don’t want to go back to a military dictatorship.”
She moves from place to place, an unrepentant fugitive, a young woman with a future unknown.