The gesture has become a symbol of defiance, as the cat-and mouse game between a small group of anti-coup protesters (the eager mice) and the military and police (the reluctant cat) moves around town.
While none of the mice has come out and explained the intended meaning, there is no doubt, from the expression on their faces, that they are quite proud of the gesture. The curious public, however, can’t stop wondering. We are a community that cherishes intrigue.
Some say it’s inspired by the salute used in the Hunger Games Trilogy, which propelled its once obscure lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, to Hollywood stardom. In the film it was meant to offer thanks, admiration and farewell to a loved one.
It’s rather difficult to believe that the anti-coup mice intend to send complimentary messages and thanks to the military and police. Maybe the last part – “a goodbye to a loved one” – is the message some protesters (not all) want to impart to the leader of their movement, signalling that the final parting may be inevitable, and a farewell warranted.
Or perhaps the hand gesture is directed only at the protesters themselves, a comradely symbol of thanks and admiration for the chutzpah they possess in resisting a totalitarian regime, like in the movie.
But wait, does a temporary military take-over of a country that was politically, economically and spiritually broken really amount to a totalitarian regime? In fact, our civil and human rights have not been grossly violated, as was the case under the now-deposed civilian government. It’s notable that a newscaster renowned for his integrity and professionalism – and not a coup supporter – remarked that more people are now willing to step forward, without fear of retaliation, and report wrongdoings such as deforestation caused by the heinous and unlawful collaboration between corrupt government officials and loggers. Farmers, whose subsistence income for backbreaking work was shamelessly swindled by the government before the May 22 coup, are now getting paid. Gone is the pressure that was driving some to suicide to escape the everyday brutalities they were left with by a scam of epic proportions, hidden under the haute couture cloak of “populist policy”.
The protesters’ three-finger salute could also be meant as a cult symbol, like the secret hand gestures by which Masons recognise each other, or like the gestures used by street gangs in the United States. The “goodbye” part is perhaps meant to say, “Till we meet again.”
Some people have suggested a link with the “scout salute” used by boy and girl scouts around the world. It signifies respect and courtesy, one of the meanings being “Honour God and the King, help others, and obey scout law”. This reading of the protesters’ intentions can be discounted, for several obvious reasons.
So far the most upright interpretation of the protesters’ salute is that it refers to the national motto of France – “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”. First heard during the French Revolution (1787-1799), the slogan was only officially adopted a century or so later during the Third Republic. In fact, it was just one of many rallying cries used during the revolution, and even then, many radicals voiced doubts about its meaning. The compatibility of liberty and equality was called into question by Jacques Necker (1732-1804), originally a revolutionary hero before he became disillusioned with the movement. Necker contended that a society of equality could only be founded by coercion. That message was later eagerly taken up by people like Mao Zedong and the Khmer Rouge.
Jonathan James, in an article in the Guardian on June 2, described the Thai protesters’ reliance on symbols copied from popular fictions such as “The Hunger Games” and “V for Vendetta” as an indication of a “tragic intellectual vacuum”. He said succinctly that the dystopian setting of these films – an imaginary place where people lead dehumanised and fearful lives – had nothing to do with the reality. “The Hunger Games” was mass entertainment, not a manual for changing the world, said James.
Computer lingo has a jesting equivalent of the three-finger salute – “Control-Alt-Delete”. The job of the three-key combination is to interrupt a computer function and end a Windows session. However, Control-Alt-Delete does not work on a Mac. Use the three-key combination on Steve Jobs’s creation and you get the warning “This is not DOS [Disk Operating System]”.
Perhaps it’s time for the anti-coup protesters to think up a new symbolic gesture, one that doesn’t reflect a “tragic intellectual vacuum” – and isn’t heavy on the borrowing, light on real meaning and showing little understanding of what this situation is all about.