The Thai three-fingered salute

Since Thailand’s May 22 military takeover, anti-coup protesters have been using a three-fingered hand gesture to show their dissent. The salute is widely thought to have originated from popular Western franchise ‘The Hunger Games’.

Thai news sources like The Nation have placed this nod to fiction in its context among a range of silent protests deployed by dissidents – ‘reading books on political subjects, covering their mouths or holding up blank pieces of paper to symbolise censorship’. Its origin isn’t entirely clear-cut; protesters vary in their accounts of where they believe it started. The BBC and the New York Times included these details when reporting on the gesture.

However, others have used the ‘Hunger Games’ hook to make their reporting revolve around the West. It should not necessarily matter to Thais what the West is writing about them – but we should be concerned that our news coverage inflates our importance in other people’s struggles.

The mild end of this Western distortion spectrum involves nothing more than potentially unfortunate phrasing, like the Huffington Post’s decision to describe the salute as ‘borrowed from’ the ‘Hunger Games’ franchise – as if the protesters are temporarily leasing out their dissent from the author, Suzanne Collins.

But delve further into Western coverage and the language becomes outright appropriative. ‘The Hunger Games salute is fighting oppression in Thailand’, claims the Guardian. And in the subtitle: ‘The three-fingered salute has become a gesture of solidarity and defiance for the protesters in Bangkok, just as it is in Panem’.

Presumably, the Guardian is aware that oppression in Thailand is in fact being fought by oppressed Thais. According to Thai protesters themselves, the salute is a conduit for expressing their shared ideals. As a headline, then, ‘The Hunger Games salute is fighting oppression’ makes about as much sense as ‘Flags are fighting oppression’.

It could be the case that the person writing the headline felt their target audience would regard ‘Hunger Games’ as a more interesting sentence subject than ‘Thai protesters’. The article’s subtitle bolsters this interpretation. A summary of the gesture as a sign of actual defiance against the actual seizure of an actual state isn’t enough to make it interesting; we also need to be told that this is ‘just as it is in Panem’, a fictional version of the US.

The Thai protesters have used the three-fingered gesture to convey their own concerns and aspirations. While some have cited ‘The Hunger Games’ as an inspiration, the far greater part of their story is the segment they’re living out day to day, often in fear of police crackdown. At best, a focus on the ‘Hunger Games’ gesture is an odd prioritisation; the interesting, important material is very clearly the greater struggle in which the salute has come to play a part. More than that, though, the framing of the article takes ownership over dissent away from the dissenters themselves. ‘The Hunger Games’ takes their spot in the headline; ‘Panem’ is the analogy seemingly required for their message to matter to us.

Similarly, Time chose to foreground American fiction over Thai reality. Describing protesters using the three-fingered sign as being ‘dragged off by troops’, the article called these scenes ‘eerily reminiscent of the Suzanne Collins novels and movie franchise’.

If you find human adversity more compelling than fictional adversity, this phrasing is sequentially bizarre. Police brutality, apparently, is eerie because it recalls something unpleasant that happened in a book. As with the Guardian subtitle, the implicit empathy-hook for Western readers is not the hardship faced by Thais, but the part where we’re reminded of something that happened to a Western character we like.

This prioritisation hints at a subtext: that the protesters do not have their own message and have ransacked the ‘Hunger Games’ to acquire one. Whether or not it’s present in the above articles, this view is made explicit in another Guardian piece in which Jonathan Jones argues that the protesters’ ‘reliance’ on ‘The Hunger Games’ is indicative of a ‘tragic intellectual vacuum’.

Note that the protesters’ message is not automatically invalided because they have chosen a reference point that enjoys less highbrow cultural capital than the ‘serious political thought’ Jones values. Note also that if, as Jones claims, a movement only has meaning if it’s based on sources ‘from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte to the writings of Antonio Gramsci’, then that excludes any protest movement from legitimacy until establishment-recognised theorists (in both the cases he cites, white European men) have been writing about it for centuries. That doesn’t sound like much of a revolution, especially for people about whose struggles Bonaparte and Gramsci couldn’t have written if they wanted to.

But the most grating assumption is that of ‘reliance’ on ‘The Hunger Games’. Because Jones isn’t aware of the three-fingered salute’s context, he assumes there isn’t one – that it must all be borrowed from a franchise.

In fact, it isn’t simply that Thai dissidents have latched onto Western motifs because we are somehow better at representing them than they themselves are. An activist told Kahosod that his read-in protest group had selected books with titles that would show ‘defiance to the military junta’s rule’ and test the limits of its ‘censorship’. Perceived foreignness matters here: Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha banned the three-fingered gesture on the explicit basis that it was ‘foreign’.

It is also worth observing that a pop culture reference isn’t necessarily chained to Western ideology. In an essay immensely critical of the old Thaksin regime’s relationship with the West, former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya makes an extended metaphorical connection between Thai democracy and ‘The Matrix’. He has enough agency to refer to a Western product in order to criticise his government’s connection with the world that produced it. We should grant at least that much prerogative to anti-coup protesters who co-opt other Western cultural symbols.

So the three-fingered gesture may have less to do with the ‘Hunger Games’ than with the military rulers’ censorship and suspicion of the West. The protesters’ use of it may have less to do with a wish to emulate the fictional Katniss Everdene and more to do with a wish to tap into the anxieties of the living, breathing regime they are standing up to.

That is not to ascribe any one motivation to the demonstrators – their concerns are disparate, and, crucially, mediated to non-Thai-speakers only through English-language sources. But we should recognise that the most important actors in Thai politics are Thai people. Protesters putting their lives on the line to oppose a government are probably primarily concerned with the effect of their actions on that government, and not with whether or not, as Time put it, ‘Panem would be proud’.