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Thailand Declares Indefinite Martial Law Amid 'Hunger Games' Salute Controversy

The news contradicts a promise from the military that it would lift the law in certain provinces to revive tourism, which has suffered in some parts of the country since the coup.

by Liz Fields
Nov 21 2014, 3:52pm

Photo via AP

On Friday, while the United Nations and rights groups condemned the Thailand junta's heavy-handed treatment of anti-coup protesters, including the arrests of numerous students this week for flashing The Hunger Games salute, the country's justice minister announced that martial law is here to stay.

"Martial law is necessary," Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya told Reuters, "and we cannot lift it because the government and junta need it as the army's tool." 

The news contradicted an earlier promise from the military that it would lift the law in certain provinces to revive tourism, which has suffered in some parts of the country since the coup and ensuing protests in May.

"We are not saying that martial law will stay in place for 50 years, no this is not it, we just ask that it remain in place for now, indefinitely," Paiboon said.

The complex consequences of Thai coup selfies. Read more here.

Paiboon's statement comes the same day the UN criticized Thailand's military over the arrests and detentions of several students this week for using a silent gesture of dissent inspired by the Hollywood franchiseThe Hunger Games.

At least five students from a local university in Thailand's northeastern province of Khon Kaen were dragged away by police and military Wednesday for reportedly brandished the three-fingered salute as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha stepped onto a podium to deliver a speech, the BBC reported.

The students were held at a military camp and held for an "attitude adjustment." Most of them were released several hours later, but the fate of at least one female student is unclear, according to statements on social media.

"This case is the latest illustration of a worrying pattern of human rights violations, which has the effect of suppressing critical and independent voices," The UN's Southeast Asian Human Rights Office representative Matilda Bogner told AFP Friday.

Thai military bans Hunger Games salute: What protesters can take from Hollywood. Read more here.

The three-fingered sign — a symbol of the revolution against violent state control in the dystopian movie series — was used by thousands of protesters this May after Prayuth, then an army general, with the backing of the military, staged the country's 12th coup in eight decades, dissolved the senate, and declared himself interim prime minister.

The coup came in response to Thailand's prolonged political deadlock between the elected populist government supported by the country's rural poor majority and anti-government protesters bolstered by the country's elite.

But soon after Prayuth declared martial law, anti-coup protesters amassed in the nation's capital of Bangkok calling for the junta to "get out" and the restoration of democratic rule. At the time, the military threatened to arrest anyone who failed to stop flashing the salute when ordered to by authorities.

On Wednesday Prayuth, who was formally approved as PM by the King in August, reacted coolly after the students' arrest, asking: "Anyone else want to protest? Come quickly. Then I can continue with my speech," the Associated Press reported.

Later that evening, another 11 students were arrested by the junta in Bangkok for allegedly organizing a dinner near the Democracy Monument in a show of support for their detained fellow students local media reported.

On Thursday, police detained three more students who raised the three-finger salute near a showing of the newest movie in the franchise, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, according to the Associated Press.

The three were later released without charge, but at least one student, Nachacha Kongudom, 21, was forced to sign a document promising she would stay away from political activism.

"The Mockingjay movie reflects what's happening in our society," Nachacha told The Associated Press before being taken away by police. "When people have been suppressed for some time, they would want to resist and fight for their rights."

The arrests and detainments have been widely condemned by rights groups, with Human Rights Watch calling them, "an obstruction of the rights to express opinions peacefully."

The military has promised to relinquish power to a civilian government and hold general elections in late 2015, but in the meantime has tightened controls on media and free speech in Thailand.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields