Thursday, December 18, 2014

Art, Life, and Imitation: Thai protests and what it means for the country's riotous future

Does art imitate life or is it the other way around? 2014 was unofficially the “Year of the Dystopia” with its many film releases following this genre. From Divergent, to The Giver, to The Maze Runner, to the wildly anticipated Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay, it’s impossible to consume popular media releases without encountering authoritarian governments, police states, and themes of resistance. 


Is this trend toward the dystopian genre indicative of global trends toward resistance against totalitarian government? Or is the spread of governmental and structural oppression protests influencing the demand for media entertainment? In the case of Thailand, the case is something entirely different: a strict military overthrow blatantly ignores and bans the media representations that strongly mirror its regime while its population turns to this very media in order to resist.

While many protests in the twenty-first century so far seem to mount against the flowing course of globalization, to rise against the combining forces of global governance, more international trade, and the clash and collision of cultures worldwide, a protest in favor of globalization looks like a very different animal for those living in authoritarian regimes. In Thailand, students and protesters are currently being detained in the name of democracy based on a three-finger protest salute picked up from the popular Hunger Games series. The new Thai military government has banned the release of the newest Hunger Games film based on protesters' use of the salute (Mydans 2014). While coups are not unusual occurrences in Thai (or even Southeast Asian) history. However, the performance of this pop-culture-protest is a different approach to previous demonstrations. The purpose of this salute, I would argue, is not only to perform as a uniting gesture for students and young people toward the militarily controlled government but also to signal to the West that something is deeply wrong by appealing to Western conceptions of uprising.

In late May of 2014, following months of building tension, unrest, and protests, a silent coup placed the country under military control. This action followed a meeting of several party leaders in order to hash out a solution. While all of these leaders entered the room in order to find some semblance of order between many factions, only one man left undetained: the country’s new ruler General Prayuth Chan-ocha (CNN 2014). This action leaves Thailand with no more constitutional monarchy and a media system that is no longer free, open, and heterogeneous (CNN 2014). But did this coup occur and why, oh why, is this so common for Thailand? Several articles from major news sources help to outline some reasons for much of the ongoing conflict in Thailand over the decades and offer some brief history.

1.     The first reason resides in the classic tensions between the lower-income, rural majority to the North of the country and urban, elite minority in the larger cities. While the majority has managed to elect a Prime Minister from their party for a little more than a decade, the minority party controls much of the judiciary system and the military (The Washington Post 2014). But wait, is this the only time this has happened…?

2.     Definitely not. Coups have been very common in Thailand throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Since 1932, there have been 12 successful coups staged in Bangkok. In almost all cases, the minority party has sought to return the country to traditional values and normalcy, as defined as rule by the minority party (The Washington Post 2014). But wait, if there was a constitutional monarchy, doesn’t that mean there’s a king? Could he stop all of this…?

3.     He has not and probably could not. Overall, the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is revered and beloved to the utmost. However, the king hasn’t been entirely well in several years and people from every party have been eyeing the status of his health. King Bhumibol’s son is significantly less respected and loved than his father and anyone in a high office after the death of the King may hold significant power (The Washington Post 2014). Huh, but if the King’s son doesn’t hold much sway over the people, who does…?

4.     The answer lies in a charismatic, aristocratic businessman named Thaksin Shinawatra, part of a dynasty family with significant sway over the country through economic and personal means (The Washington Post 2014). Since the 2006 coup, Thaksin has lived abroad in exile though his sister Yingluck served as Prime Minister until the May 2014 coup (CNN 2014). With the Shinawatra siblings gone, many political leaders detained, the King in ill health, the successor to the throne not very well-liked, and the general of the military seizure of power of the entire nation, who knows what will happen next…?

5.     Nobody knows. But it makes for one hell of a story and that’s where the use of the Hunger Games style salute comes into play.

As I mentioned before, the use of the three-finger Hunger Games salute is most likely a ploy for photo-ready, succinct transmission of a cry for help to the West, to the East, for anyone to realize what is happening in Thailand. But what do three raised fingers have to do with protest and globalization? Good question, let’s explore that thought. 

The salute itself comes from the multi-million dollar movie and book franchise, The Hunger Games, most recently released as a third installment in the form of Mockingjay. In the first book and movie, the salute is established as a sign of belonging as citizens of the lowest-income, most marginalized district of the fictional country of Panem salute the main character Katniss as she goes to compete to her almost-certain death. Having won the titular Games, the salute is then used by other districts to indicate their allegiance to Katniss and, by extension, their resistance against the totalitarian government (IMDb 2012). In a particularly gruesome scene in the second movie, a protester salutes Katniss at a large government gathering and he is shot before her eyes.

Video found here: 

In comparison, students at local universities in Thailand flashed the salute to General Prayuth Chan-ocha while wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Thai equivalent of “No coup.” Police and soldiers rounded up the students and were reported sent to a military camp for “attitude adjustment” (BBC 2014). With that action, this situation ceased to sound real and began sounding like a dystopian movie, similar to that of the Hunger Games franchise. Perhaps, in a way, students have chosen this salute in order to signal to the Western audience reading about their situation how drastically authoritarian and strict Thailand has become. So much so, the situation begins to read like a work of fiction.
The performative gesture of the three-finger salute works here on two levels: it seeks to both personalize and reinforce the need for intervention. Since holding up three fingers worked so well for Jennifer Lawrence's character Katniss, couldn't it work for every real person now living under military rule in Thailand? Similarly, it unites the protesting students together with the media outlets photographing them. The salute is a surefire way to grab a cameraman's attention and a headline pointing out the connection between a popular, American-made film and a real-life coup is bound to rouse attention. In such an increasingly interconnected world, in which news outlets around the world can still receive word of such a closed-off coup within hours, globalization is both the means and the goals of the protests. Thai students are utilizing Western media, in the form of the movie and news outlets, in order to fight the traditionalist regime that itself wishes to slow the procession of globalization in Thailand. In this way, performance of protest and the processes of globalization come together in the intersection between fiction and reality for Thailand.

The efficiency of this performative gesture is enormous, in which so much about the nation's situation is conveyed through a simple act. It is difficult to say whether this simple of protest will continue to aid protesters, as it is still occurring today. The real-time implications of the protesters' use of the salute has resulted in the government's ban of the release of Mockingjay in all theaters in the country, for fear of more rebellion (Mydans 2014). This move illustrates even more clearly what the Thai government most likely wishes to hide: globalization has made controlling their population in the past and present more difficult and this trend will most likely continue into the future. 

Works Cited
Botelho, Greg, Paula Hancocks, Paula Hancocks, Kocha Olarn Reported from Bangkok, With Jethro Mullen Reporting, Writing In Hong Kong, Greg Botelho, Holly Yan, Catherine E. Shoichet, and Henry Hanks in Atlanta. Simon Harrison in Bangkok Also. "Thai Military Takes over in Coup -- Again." CNN. Cable News Network, 22 May 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.
"Five Reasons a Coup Was Staged in Thailand, Again." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 May 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
"The Hunger Games." IMDb., 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
Mydans, Seth. "Thai Protesters Are Detained After Using Hunger Games Salute." The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
"Thais Held for 'Hunger Games' Salute." BBC News. BBC, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

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