KHON KAEN – Five Thai university students were detained Wednesday after giving a three-fingered salute inspired by “The Hunger Games” to the army-backed prime minister in a daring protest against the country’s military government.
The students, wearing T-shirts saying, “Don’t Want a Coup,” stood up with their backs to Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha while he spoke on a stage in Khon Kaen, a city in the northeast, an area that is a stronghold of former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
They raised three fingers above their heads, a symbol of resistance inspired by the book trilogy and Hollywood blockbuster, before police escorted them out. The five men from Khon Kaen University were taken to a police station and then an army camp, where they questioned by soldiers, human rights lawyer Sasinan Thamnithinan said. She said they have not been charged.
Thai protesters used the salute immediately after the May 22 coup, but have mostly stopped amid police crackdowns on demonstrations.
In “The Hunger Games,” the salute symbolizes rebellion against totalitarian rule, signifying thanks, admiration and good-bye to a loved one. But Thai protesters have also cited the French Revolution’s values of liberty, equality, fraternity, while others said it means freedom, election and democracy.
Prayuth, often prickly with critics, stopped his speech when the students stood, and smiled calmly. “Anyone else wants to protest? Come quickly. Then I can continue with my speech,” he said into the microphone as the audience chuckled.
Since taking power from a civilian, elected government in May, the military has heavily suppressed resistance from opposition groups and activists. Martial law, invoked a few days before the coup, remains in effect and bans political gatherings of five or more people.
“Mockingjay,” the third movie in the “The Hunger Games” series, opens in Thai cinemas Thursday.
New proposed bill could jail protesters for up to 10 years
The arrests come a day after the Thai cabinet endorsed a bill to further regulate protests, including banning the occupation of state buildings.
Under the bill, organizers of political protests will now have to seek police permission 24 hours in advance and will no longer be able to occupy government buildings or transport hubs such as airports.
The bill will have to pass a vote at the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly before it comes into law.
It aims to craft tight rules on protest venues, timings and “how authorities can deal with protesters”, Mr Prayuth Chan told reporters.
People who break the new rules could be jailed for up to 10 years, he added.
Since seizing power the military has suspended democracy and curtailed freedom of expression in the kingdom, responding aggressively to any form of protest.
In June police arrested a lone student reading George Orwell’s anti-authoritarian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and eating a sandwich, while others have previously been detained for displaying the three-fingered salute.
Deputy government spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said Mr Prayut was “unaffected” by the incident.
“People can think differently but should not quarrel with each other,” Mr Kaewkumnerd said.
Six months since the coup, the military-appointed government has not outlined a clear election timetable so the nation can return to democratic rule.