Junta flayed over crackdown on rebellious 'Hunger Games' salute

Three Thai university students were taken into police custody on Thursday for handing out free tickets to the latest film in the Hunger Games series, from which Thai protesters have borrowed a gesture of resistance to a totalitarian government.

The junta's move to suppress freedom of expression by arresting students who raise their arm in a "Hunger Games"-inspired three-finger salute has drawn the attention of international media and agencies, as well as Thais living overseas, with many slamming the authorities for violating people's basic rights.

The Southeast Asia branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) yesterday criticised the military authorities for a recent spate of instances where people were led away for questioning after making the three-fingered protest salute, Agence France-Presse reported.

"This case is the latest illustration of a worrying pattern of human-rights violations, which has the effect of suppressing critical and independent voices," local OHCHR representative Matilda Bogner said.

Thai expatriates in Seattle, meanwhile, gathered at the AMC Pacific Place 11 cinema to protest against the junta's moves and later posted comments on Facebook condemning it for arresting people for making symbolic anti-coup gestures. They also voiced concern about the ongoing martial law.

"I think the ruthless arrest of Thais who protest against the government reflects not only the clear authoritarian nature of the current government, but also its squeamishness and weakness," a comment read.

"Symbolic protests such as eating a sandwich or the three-finger gesture [are] by no means a powerful act. Yet the paranoia of the military-imposed government has made these symbols increasingly meaningful."

On Wednesday, five student activists flashed the three-finger salute in front of coup leader and appointed Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was delivering a speech in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.

The junta has banned this gesture because in the "Hunger Games" film series it signifies resistance against a totalitarian regime. Spooked by the ban, a couple of Bangkok cinemas also pulled the latest "Hunger Games" film off their listing.

This move and the arrest of the five students in Khon Kaen prompted another group of students in Bangkok to gather outside Bangkok cinemas and hold up their arms in the three-finger salute - acts that drew significant interest from international media.

The New York Times described it as "resistance to an authoritarian government", while Time magazine said it "opposed Thailand's dictatorial regime".

The picture of student Nachada Kongudom flashing the "Hunger Games" salute at Paragon Cineplex was carried on the front page of The Wall Street Journal under the headline "Hunger Games film strikes a nerve in Thailand".

Other key international agencies such as the British Broadcasting Corp, The Independent, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, the Daily Mail and The Guardian have also covered the issue.