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Talking to Students at Bangkok's Hunger Games Protest

In Thailand, the Hunger Games films have increasingly become a symbol of dissent against the military junta running the country.
November 23, 2014, 12:00am

​The Hunger Games movies have become a sym​bol of covert defiance and political expression for protestors in Thailand against the military junta running the country. The newest film opened at the box office this week, and by the end of its first day, three activists had been arrested and the Deputy Prime Minister had to get involved.

Shortly after the Thai army staged a coup d'état on May 22—the 12th successful coup in the past century—protesters began flashing the three-finger salute seen in the Hunger Games to show their opposition to the military takeover. Characters in the Hollywood blockbuster also raise the salute as an act of rebellion against an authoritarian regime, but as anti-coup activists in Thailand will tell you, the struggle here is quite real.

Since seizing power, Thailand's military rulers have suspended the country's democracy, muffled the press, and banned all political protests and criticism of the regime.

On Wednesday, three student activists were arrested during their effort to organize a mass viewing of the movie's latest instalment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I, which opened in theaters across Thailand.

The students originally planned to watch the premiere at the Scala theater in Bangkok, but the cinema pulled the movie from its seasonal lineup after it caught wind of the students' plans. Two activists showed up at the theater Thursday morning to explain to the press that they would not be deterred; they would watch the movie en masse at another surprise location.

"We just want to see the movie," Rattapon Supsopon, a fourth year Economics student at Thammasat University, told a gaggle of reporters and several dozen policemen who stood by idly. "There will be no three-finger salutes, no demonstrations, no politics," he promised. Minutes later, he was escorted off the premises by plain-clothed police, shoved into a silver SUV, and driven to the police station.

His "comrade," as the students call each other, was arrested shortly thereafter for showing the press his copy of George Orwell's _1984—_another symbol of coup resistance that has been banned by the junta. In May, the same student was arrested for reading the dystopian novel in public.

"I guess I'm in command now," Rick Rittiphan said as he waited for others at the surprise location: a movie theater in Siam Paragon, one of Bangkok's most upscale malls. He and three other students purchased 200 tickets for the 12:40 PM showing of the movie, which they planned to distribute to whomever wanted one, including members of the press.

"It's gunna happen,"  Rittiphan said as he divided up the paper tickets. "We're going to mock them with Mockingjay."

Almost on cue, a crowd of reporters and security guards arrived at the scene. Their attention quickly turned to a first-year female student from Bangkok University who began flashing the three-finger salute in front of Jennifer Lawrence's larger-than-life face on one of the movie's billboards.

Police moved in to arrest her, just as they had done with five other students in northeastern Thailand who flashed the salute the day before. Meanwhile, Rittiphan and dozens of other students managed to slip into the theater and watch the movie as planned. With only three comrades arrested, the event was deemed a success.

After the commotion subsided, Arnon Nampha, a prominent lawyer who regularly represents members of anti-coup political faction, shook his head while he ate ice cream inside the luxurious movie theater.

"It makes the military look silly when they try to stop students from seeing a movie," he said. "It's nonsense."

The arrests of the saluting students at the cinema forced General Prawit Wongsuwna, Deputy Prime Minister and a member of the Junta's National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to make a statement.

"If anyone disagrees with the NCPO, they have the right to think that way. But they cannot express that [disagreement], strictly," he said.

"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. The NCPO is asking for only one year, which is not a long time, in order to reform the country and lead it to a new election. And then things will return to normalcy immediately."

The director of the movies, Francis Lawrence, had been relatively silent on the situation in Thailand until earlier this week, when he told  ​The Sydney Morning Herald he was unsettled by all of the arrests.

"When people are getting arrested for doing something from your movie, it's troubling," Lawrence said. "It is sort of thrilling that something that happens in the movie can become a symbol for people, for freedom or protest. But when 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."

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All images by the author.