- - Thursday, November 20, 2014

BANGKOK — Welcome to “The Hunger Games” — Thai style.

Just like the rebels in the movie franchise, protesters here raise a defiant three-finger salute to signal opposition to the military’s takeover of the civilian government six months ago.

And just like the leaders of the films’ dystopian society, Thai authorities have banned the gesture, arresting anyone who dares render the silent salute.

On Thursday, more than 100 police officers and plainclothes security forces converged on Bangkok’s prestigious Siam Paragon cinema after anti-coup protesters had promised to hand out 160 free tickets for the premiere of the latest sequel, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I.”

In the cinema’s lobby, university student Nachacha Kongudom posed while saluting with three fingers in front of the movie’s huge poster, and allowed herself to be photographed by the media before she was taken away by police.

Near the Siam Paragon theater, police detained two other protesters who raised the salute, which Thai dissidents deliberately appropriated from the films as their own symbol of defiance. (The movies depict a motley collection of ragtag rebels rising up against a well-heeled authoritarian government led by a despotic president.)

“The ‘Mockingjay’ movie reflects what’s happening in our society,” Ms. Nachacha, 21, told The Associated Press before being arrested. “When people have been suppressed for some time, they would want to resist and fight for their rights.”

An anti-coup activist with the Twitter handle @freeMindTH tweeted “And so now we found our #ThaiMockingjay!” and posted a photo of Ms. Nachacha, comparing her to Katniss Everdeen, the leader of the fictional rebellion portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence.

“I believe the students’ symbolic protests that are happening in many areas at the moment will not escalate, because I believe the majority of the people understand what the NCPO and the government are doing,” Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwna said Thursday, referring to the military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order.

“The government is currently working to build reconciliation,” said Gen. Prawit, who is also the deputy prime minister.

Still, two other Bangkok cinemas suddenly canceled their Thursday screenings of “Mockingjay” for fear of a political confrontation, this despite the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in ticket and concessions sales the Hollywood blockbuster is expected to generate.

Activists had tried to buy 200 tickets from the two cinemas for free distribution to protesters in a Hunger Games-themed contest.

Their Facebook contest was headlined “Raise Three Fingers, Bring Popcorn and Go to the Theater,” and asked contestants “How does the Capitol resemble Bangkok?” — a reference to the movies’ center of power. It garnered more than 240 replies on the Facebook page of the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD), which is based at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

Lionsgate, “Mockingjay“‘s Hollywood production company, had no comment on the situation, the AP reported.

On Wednesday, five students walked up to a podium where coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was speaking in the northeast town of Khon Kaen and displayed three-finger salutes in front of him, to the surprise of the general, his audience and security staff. Their T-shirts read “Do Not Want a Coup.”

Gen. Prayuth, who is portrayed by Thai media as frequently lashing out at critics and lacking patience, calmly asked his audience, “Anyone else want to protest? If so, please do. Then I can speak.”

Police detained and later released the five students Wednesday.

In its second bloodless coup in eight years, Thailand’s U.S.-trained military in May overthrew the elected government following months of bothersome, sometimes deadly protests and political gridlock in this constitutional monarchy. The political landscape is riven between the mostly rural supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who has rewarded them with populist programs, and the elite backers of the military-judicial establishment, which can’t win elections.

The town of Khon Kaen is in the heartland of the political opposition to the junta led by Gen. Prayuth, who was on his first visit there Wednesday since seizing power.

Wednesday night, 11 students from the LLTD staged an outdoor dinner in front of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to express solidarity with the five students who had interrupted Gen. Prayuth’s speech, and allowed themselves to be photographed waving three-finger salutes. Police detained the 11 students and later released them.

Under the junta’s martial law regime, free speech and the salute are banned. Violators are detained and told to sign documents promising to stop protesting or else undergo “attitude adjustment” in military camps.

Most dissent appears daily on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, and includes Thais and foreigners engaging in scholarly analysis, calling for democracy and issuing satirical blasts against Gen. Prayuth’s regime.

Protesters first began displaying the three-finger salute during street demonstrations in Bangkok that attracted hundreds of people shortly after the May coup.

When the newest “Hunger Games” film opened in London in mid-November, protesters there held signs declaring their support for “District Thai” — their made-up extension of the movie’s fictional geographic regions under authoritarian rule.

“It is sort of thrilling that something that happens in the movie can become a symbol for people, for freedom or protest,” the film’s director, Francis Lawrence, told reporters in London on Nov. 15.

“But when [Thai] kids started getting arrested for it it takes the thrill out of it, and it becomes much more dangerous, and it makes the feeling much more complex. When people are getting arrested for doing something from your movie, it’s troubling,” Mr. Lawrence said.

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