A three-fingered salute that originated in the Hunger Games film series has been adopted by activists from Thailand to Myanmar, becoming a symbol of resistance and solidarity for democracy movements across south-east Asia.
The gesture, along with popular online memes repurposed as protest signs, are part of a suite of symbols adopted from global popular culture by a new generation of young activists reared on the internet and savvy about making their struggles resonate with audiences abroad.
The three-fingered gesture was first used in Myanmar last week by medical workers, then youth protesters started raising it in opposition to the military coup. On Monday, one week after the takeover, the salute could be seen during huge protests on the streets of Yangon.
In the Hunger Games, the three fingers represented solidarity in a dystopian world where rebels fought for freedom against an all-powerful tyrant.
Following the military takeover, a small group of youth protesters massed in front of a busy shopping mall to show their dissatisfaction. One of the protesters suddenly raised the salute.
“When this person started, others followed. So it automatically became an anti-coup symbol,” says Sirawith Seritiwat, 28, a prominent Thai pro-democracy activist who was present at the time.
Since 2014, the hand gesture has been used widely in Thailand at protest sites.
“We knew that it would be easily understood to represent concepts of freedom, equality, solidarity,” Seritiwat said. He added that the anti-authoritarian messaging conveyed in the Hunger Games films resonated with the youth protesters at the time.
“It was partly because the anti-coup situation back then felt similar to scenes in the Hunger Games film, where people put three fingers up towards President Snow,” he said.
Signs carried by young protesters against Myanmar’s military coup have featured familiar characters such as Pepe the Frog – adopted in 2016 as a symbol of the US far right, and more recently used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong – and Doge and Cheems, two dogs usually picture noisily smacking one another with a bat.
The memes, often accompanied by an English-language message and tweaked to include the face of prominent Myanmar junta leaders, reflect the openness to the world of a new generation of young Burmese activists in a country that was largely isolated for the decades it was ruled by the army alone until 2010.
Since then, rates of internet use have expanded from virtually nothing to more than a third of the country, with an estimated 80% smartphone penetration.
The popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook – and insufficient moderation by the tech company – was cited as a factor in the whipping up of hatred and xenophobia that accompanied a resurgence of extreme violence against the country’s Rohingya people in 2016-7.
Fearing it could also be used against them, the army last week drastically curbed internet access, but relented after about a day, with service restored across most of the country.