BANGKOK — Never underestimate the power of pop culture. In the midst of recent Thai protests, “The Hunger Games” film series has become an engine for resistance. Opponents of the military junta have adopted the dystopian blockbusters’ famous three-fingered salute as a form of silent dissent.
On May 22, trouble in Thailand started when Gen. Paryuth Chan-ocha, leader of Thailand’s military forces, declared a state of martial law. The military then seized power in a bloodless coup. Declared “Prime Minister,” Chan-ocha proceeded to arrest the nation’s major political leaders, shut down anti-junta television broadcasts and websites and impose a nightly curfew on the whole nation.
Responses from the Thai people have been varied, but a strong anti-junta sentiment is palpable. The three-fingered salute has emerged as their latest form of protest. Unlike other symbols of political resistance, the salute is one based in science fiction rather than mainstream politics or history.
Adopted from Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” the salute—originally meaning “thanks, admiration and goodbye”—has taken on a revolutionary meaning for the Thais who use it. The majority of protesters associate the salute with the mantra of the French Revolution— “liberty, equality and fraternity”—though others have interpreted it as “freedom, election and democracy.”
The salute made its first appearance on June 1 at a Bangkok shopping mall, where protesters had gathered to protest the junta through nonviolence. Drawing on pop culture, dozens of those protesters proceeded to raise the three-fingered salute. At least one woman was arrested and forced into an unmarked police car. She continued to flash the salute out the rear window of the vehicle as she was driven away.
Thailand’s junta is keeping its eye on this newest form of protest. Though the salute does not break any laws currently in place, civilians caught raising their three fingers are being asked to lower their arms. On June 3, the leaders of the junta announced that they “will arrest those in large groups who ignore warnings to lower their arms.”
Such threats have not dampened the spirit of anti-junta protesters. Many have taken to Twitter as a further form of protest. These activists are snapping photos of themselves as they raise the three-fingered salute and sharing these images with the world.
Sombat Boonngam-anong, a Thai social activist, has encouraged protestors to use the salute more often. He asks that his countrymen raise “3 fingers, 3 times a day” for 30 seconds at a time, preferably in places with low police and military presence.
“The Hunger Games” salute is not the people’s only pop culture weapon against the military coup. Elsewhere, small groups of Thais have gathered in public to hold reading protests. George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a popular choice. Large images of Chan-ocha as Big Brother are also circulating.
What the end results of these protests will be are unknown, but Atiya Achakulwisut, writer for the Bangkok Post, has advised caution on the military’s part. She encourages junta leaders to read or watch “The Hunger Games” for themselves and to tread cautiously as they deal with protesters. As fans of the series know, acts of oppression do not end well for the oppressors.