The saga of a three-finger salute
News of the pandemic waves of Covid-19 and political waves of the three-fingered protest is making the rounds. The confidence that we mustered with the advent of vaccines is being punctured by the rise in the number of affected coronavirus patients. At the same time, the hope of democratic process in the region is being shattered by the military coup in our neighbouring South East Asian countries; the antidote is an iconic salute. Taking their cue from popular culture, protesters first in Thailand, then in Hong Kong, and now in Myanmar, are trying to take a symbolic stance against respective authoritarian regimes. They have borrowed the three-finger salute from the literary and film series The Hunger Games and used this gesture to demonstrate an act of defiance. Like the vaccine, it has the potential to be effective, but its potency is yet to be tested.
The salute became popular in the wake of an earlier Thai military coup in 2014. The coup coincided with the release of the first part of Mocking Jay based on Suzanne Collin's last book of the trilogy Hunger Games. In the movie, the young female protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence), led an uprising against the tyrannical rulers of a fictional country called Panem. In the manner of Katniss, Thai political activist Rittipong Mahapetch flashed this now-famous three-finger salute standing on a pedestrian overpass in Bangkok against the backdrop of soldiers occupying the streets. The image caught the imagination of the protesters around the world.
In the novel, Katniss explained the saluteas "an old and rarely used gesture of [her] district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means goodbye to someone you love." Talking to the newsmen, however, Rittipong equated the spirit of the salute with the three principles of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Rittipong's colleague Sombat, who is also credited for popularising the gesture, added, saying, "It's not about one country, it's a symbol for all people who want freedom. It's universal." It needs to be mentioned here that generations of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides have been using this three-finger salute since their inception in 1908 to reiterate their oaths of keeping themselves physically, mentally and morally straight. For this new generation of youth, it seems, the salute has a new political significance. It is a spin-off from the popular culture that enters the political domain with new possibilities: "Umbrella Protests" in Hong Kong used it as a demand for universal suffrage, and now the anti-coup demonstrations in Myanmar are using it for their free Suu Kyi movement.
This is a classic example of culturalism where the culture becomes a political ideology. The meeting of the three middle fingers with the thumb crossed over to meet the pinkie is a symbolic confluence of youth-led movements against authoritarianism. It symbolises the way these young people devise their strategies against powerful enemies, render support for one another, and add momentum to their efforts. The #MilkTeaAlliance is a case in point that emerged as an online campaign through which Asian activists from Taiwan to Myanmar expressed solidarity with each other. The activists from this region are using new technologies to form regional, albeit global alliances. One of the key figures of the Hong Kong movement Joshua Wong, for instance, was invited to address a protest rally in Thailand to add momentum to their efforts. But the Thai authorities deported Wong before he could give his speech. Wong found more traction online as his live-streamed address via Skype reached more people than originally anticipated.
The meeting of the fingers is therefore a symbolic meeting of cultures. It is an act of solidarity and resistance. More importantly, it is a sign of adoption and adaptation. The journey of the three-finger salute from scouting to a fictive resistance and eventually to realpolitik suggests that change is inevitable and natural.
The pandemic has been a hot seat of change. The Tom and Jerry chase involving the virus and the vaccine is akin to the way the oppressor and the oppressed are acting and reacting. We are living in a world where we have espoused many abnormal elements as the new normal. Lockdown is a good example; self-isolation is another. Many cynics who follow the Thai political scene believe that the lockdown there is largely political. Despite the heavy economic toll, the Thai government is not relaxing its health restrictions as it is important for them to arrest the political unrest.
The subtle politics is symptomatic of the sophisticated authoritarianism that the military governments in these countries employ. They too have evolved from the crude form of martial law. They now get involved in the electoral process and try to give legitimacy to their military rule by producing proxy civilian figures. When their puppets stop serving their purposes, they are thrown into jail or removed forever. Think of the former State Counsellor Suu Kyi going to the Hague and defending the genocide of the very junta that has now brought in charges of bribery to end her political career for good. Vigilance against such anomalies often turns violent: the streets of Yangon and Bangkok are replete with examples a plenty.
Then there are other kinds of realpolitik. One may argue, why the younger generation of Myanmar did not speak against the same military junta when they exterminated an entire ethnic community in the Rakhine province? Why did one action of the military receive endorsement by the protesting mass, while the other one did not? How are antibodies created within a body? What prompts reactions? What does not? If we are to talk of democracy, then should we not think of all members and groups living in a democratic society? Can we be selective in lifting our fingers or pointing fingers at someone?
I am intrigued by this politics of fingers. The three-finger salute is a recognisable gesture, thanks to the massive popularity of The Hunger Games. The western world can immediately relate to what is being said through those raised fingers. Through this salute, the east meets the west. Then again, this gesture has been appropriated to serve a very local purpose. It is both an action and a reaction. Analogous to vaccines, it promises resistance, it promises hope. The only danger is that the enemy has many strains, too; and it has the equal power to constantly mutate and mutilate its enemies. We await a day when the three-finger turns into two to signify victory.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).