Medical staff at Yangon General Hospital in Myanmar posed for a group photo on Wednesday, raising three fingers in a salute of resistance after Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader of the country, was ousted in a military coup on Monday.
The salute will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Hunger Games movies, a film franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence where oppressed people stand up against an authoritarian ruling class, and that’s no coincidence. Plucked from dystopian science fiction, the Hunger Games salute has spread across Southeast Asia in the past decade as a symbol of pro-democracy protest.
The three-fingered salute first gained traction in Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbour to the southeast, when protesters started utilising the salute after the May 2014 military coup. By June, the ruling military junta in Thailand banned the salute, which military leaders recognised from the popular films.
When the third movie in the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay: Part 1, was released in November of 2014, pro-democracy students showed up to Thai theatres that were showing the new film and proudly gave the salute, only to be escorted out and detained by undercover police.
Some movie theatres in Thailand stopped showing the new Hunger Games movie, for fear of appearing political, but the students were undeterred and more protesters appeared knowing full well they’d be arrested. Word got back to the Hunger Games filmmakers in Hollywood, who were both thrilled and concerned that the salute was being adopted by potentially vulnerable people overseas.
“Part of it is sort of thrilling that something that happens in the movie can become a symbol for people, for freedom or protest,” director Francis Lawrence told Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2014. “When people are getting arrested for doing something from your movie, it’s troubling.”
From Thailand the salute spread to Hong Kong, where the Umbrella Revolution was in full swing by the time the new Hunger Games movie was released in November 2014. Hong Kong activists commonly used umbrellas as shields against tear gas canisters deployed by police and, perhaps more importantly, as a way to hide their identities from ubiquitous surveillance cameras.
The demonstrators in Hong Kong were frustrated by Beijing’s increasing influence in the city, which had operated on a “one country, two systems” principle with political leadership in mainland China after the former British colony was returned. And the protesters proudly raised their three-fingered salute whenever they got the chance to show solidarity.
Today, the three fingered salute is spreading in Myanmar, a symbol of resistance against a military coup that ousted democratically elected members of government on Monday, including controversial State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The leader will be tried by the new military government for treason, according to new reports from Myanmar on Wednesday, which could mean the death penalty.
Popular culture often finds its way into protest movements around the world and Myanmar is just the latest resistance movement to latch on to symbols from Tinseltown. The Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous movements of the early 2010s often had protesters donning a Guy Fawkes mask, inspired by the 2005 movie V For Vendetta. Despite the anti-corporate bent of both protest movements, media giant Time Warner was reportedly making a lot of money from masks sales.
“We sell over 100,000 of these masks a year, and it’s by far the best-selling mask that we sell,” one costume supply company told the New York Times back in 2011.
More recently, comic character Pepe the Frog was adopted as a mascot for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong during the 2019 uprising against Beijing, a reclamation of the character from far right elements online who had adopted it as a symbol of hate.
No one really knows what the future holds for the Burmese people, with the military in charge for at least the next year, according to the ruling regime. But if you see someone from Myanmar or Thailand or Hong Kong making the Hunger Games salute, it’s no accident.
They want freedom. And they’re raising three fingers to let you know they need it now.