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Three Finger Salute: The Thai Version

Thousands of pro-democracy protesters continue to gather in the Thai capital Bangkok in mass defiance of a decree banning demonstrations. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in 2014 in a military coup, is the main target of protesters who have also broached the once untouchable subject of reforming the monarchy. Insulting the king or his family is punishable with 15 years in jail. But the protestors, comprising of ordinary, struggling, angry folks, have said goodbye to fear with a three-finger salute.

They are unstoppable, But why ?

Tens of thousands of Thai protesters cheered and chanted into the night in central Bangkok on October 15 in a show of mass defiance to a ban on demonstrations designed to end more than three months of anti-government action. As they dispersed at 10 p.m. (1500 GMT), protesters pledged to return to the same place every day.

Growing demonstrations have targeted King Maha Vajiralongkorn as well as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former junta leader, in the biggest challenge for years to an establishment long dominated by the army and palace. “Like dogs cornered, we are fighting till our deaths,” Panupong “Mike Rayong” Jadnok, one the high-profile protest leaders who remains free, told the crowd. “We won’t fall back. We won’t run away. We won’t go anywhere.”

Protesters ignored police appeals to disperse than a decade of violence between supporters and opponents of the Thai establishment. “All protesters will be prosecuted” the deputy head of Bangkok police, Piya Tawichai, told a news conference. “I would like us to warn the children and youth: participating in these protests could impact you in the future.”

  • Protesters chanted for the release of some 40 and spilled from the Ratchaprasong Intersection across streets and walkways, their mobile phones shimmering in the night. The location was the scene of bloodshed in 2010, during more activists arrested this week. Some also called out insults against the king – until recently almost unheard of behavior in a country where the constitution says he must be worshipped. Closing the protest, student leader Jutatip Sirikhan called on people to return at 5pm. on Friday and daily thereafter. Police put the number of protesters at 10,000. That seemed like a gross underestimate.
  • Three months of protests in the country of 70 million have been largely peaceful. But in one incident on Oct. 14, police pushed jeering protesters away from a motorcade carrying Queen Suthida. Overnight the government banned political gatherings of five or more people and the publication of news and online information that could threaten national security. Riot police swiftly cleared a protest camp outside Prayuth’s office. “The measures were necessary to ensure peace and order,” government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said in a statement. He rejected accusations from some government crítics that the motorcade incident was an excuse to crack down.
  • Thai media reported that arrest warrants had been issued against two people for injuring the queen – which can carry a life sentence, whereas the maximum penalty for insulting the monarch under lese majeste laws is 15 years in jail. Police said they had arrested protest leaders Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and rights lawyer Arnon Nampa overnight. Student leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul was taken away in a wheelchair. The three leaders face sedition charges over comments at previous protests.

Why the fingers ?

The three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games movies flashed by Thai protesters at the royal motorcade this week has become the primary symbol of resistance in the kingdom in recent years.

  • The gesture is a way to signal support for greater democracy, but also anger towards the country’s royalist military establishment at a time when entrenched inequality is worsening. The salute first emerged in 2014 to signal defiance against a military regime which seized power in a coup. That coup leader – former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha – is now the prime minister and the main target of protesters who have also broached the once unassailable subject of reforming the monarchy
  • In the Hunger Games books and movies, the residents of a dystopian future North America – who are forced to compete in a televised death match – initially use the gesture to mean thanks, admiration and goodbye to someone they love. But it morphs into a more general symbol of an uprising against their wealthy, totalitarian overlords, who live in a luxurious capital, protected by a zealous military. The message resonated in Thailand, where a hugely disproportionate chunk of wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small Bangkok minority, and where generals have launched repeated coups to protect their interests.