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Opinion: Political Gestures | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An anti-coup protester makes signs of defiance with three fingers, their symbol of opposition, stemming from the movie The Hunger Games, at an illegal protest at a sky rail station in Bangkok, Thailand, 08 June 2014. (EPA/BARBARA WALTON)

Over the past few days, Thai protesters have added a symbolic contribution to the world of protests and collective opposition. A stream of pictures and reports show men and women from various backgrounds demonstrating, and raising their three middle fingers of one hand up in the air.

Thai protesters are using this gesture to declare their rejection to the recent military coup and the army’s control of the country, and the arbitrary acts of the military government over the past month. The protesters have started using this symbol after borrowing it from the Hunger Games film franchise, which is based on a series of novels for young readers.

The protesters are seeking a way to express themselves following the army’s closure of media outlets by the use of the symbol of the three fingers to show their discontent and rejection of authoritarianism. One Thai woman protester recently wrote a tweet which said: “We took our protest symbol from the film, but our struggle is real, it is not a fantasy.”

The original inspiration for the three-finger gesture was taken from the symbols of the French revolution: Liberty, Justice and Fraternity. The adoption of the gesture from the films has met with a huge popular response and began to spread widely to the point that those who used it were threatened with arrest and detention.

This Thai contribution to the lexicon of protests with this specific symbolic gesture follows as part of a wider pattern seen in protests around the world. In other places, specific gestures like this one have become an effective symbolic method to represent collective adoption of a slogan, principle, or the rejection of something. It has angered authorities who have pursued those who use such symbols.

Protests are in essence collective, physical actions in which expressions and signals are used to strengthen and reinforce the message which protesters are trying to convey. Despite many symbols being used in popular protests over the years, the most prominent symbol remains that which former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used during the Second World War, when he sought to convey the feeling of victory to the masses, raising his two fingers in a V-sign, representing the first letter of the word, “victory.”

Since then, this symbol spread widely, and despite the passing of 73 years and the many other symbols which appeared, the victory symbol remains the most prominent, and is rarely absent from any protest.

It was even used by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who turned it into a Palestinian popular symbol. The clinched fist is another symbol which has been adopted by opposition movements around the world. It was popularized in Serbia in 2000, when the late president Slobodan Milošević was toppled, and later in protests in Ukraine, Iran and many other countries, reaching the Arab world with the eruption of the revolutions in 2011, when the Arab protests saw many hand and finger symbols used.

But are these symbols enough for genuine political expression in the streets and squares? It is true that these methods are designed to represent a greater and more important message in a specific symbol, but the this also runs a risk that they will become mere symbols, something that is used when the space for expression and protest is restricted, leaving only symbols behind.

And the Thai protesters are not the only ones confusing the authorities with their hand gestures.