Thailand’s modern and “popular” coup

June 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Thailand’s reaction to the recent martial law and coup d’etat is quite different than what one would typically associate with military action in a democratic nation. First it was the spread of selfies, taken in front of or even with soldiers, soon after the martial law was announced in third week of May. And now, in another call from the popular culture, some Thai protesters have adopted the three-fingered revolutionary salute from The Hunger Games novels and films:

On Sunday, authorities deployed nearly 6,000 soldiers and police in Bangkok to prevent planned protests against the coup. Amid the heavy security, creative forms of protest emerged. Some people wore masks as they walked through a central shopping district. Others joined small flash mobs, or stood alone, and flashed three fingers in the air.

Asked what the symbol meant, protesters have given varying explanations. Some say it stands for the French Revolution’s trinity of values: liberty, equality, fraternity. Others say it means freedom, election and democracy. A photo montage circulating online paired a picture from the science fiction blockbuster “The Hunger Games” with a graphic of three fingers labeled, 1. No Coup, 2. Liberty, 3. Democracy

It would be churlish to suggest that using pop-culture phenomena is an indication of superficiality of the protests. If anything, it seems to be well ingrained into the lives of Thai population. Let’s not forget that this is the country which has experienced coups/military takeovers 18 times in roughly 80 years of constitutional democracy. That’s one coup every four years or so, less than the five years it would take for a complete democratic cycle. The selfies or similar such things have somewhat become a part of this ritual- people similarly took to street and photography in 2006 and 2010 military takeovers. Thus, they become part of periodic reset that the country experiences every few years, and sees the military as agents of that reset. From an editorial in Bangkok Post:

Anti-military demonstrators may have opted for the three-finger salute as their symbol of resistance today, but they are not bound to use it forever. In fact, it’s likely they will come up with other photogenic, eye-catching symbols as they move their protests on. Suppressing the gesture will only make the coup makers look crazy.

The coup makers’s main task is to ensure peace and security during the short-term and return the country to democracy as soon as possible. As long as they are dedicating themselves to these tasks, they need not fear symbols.

The power of a symbol or symbolic gesture lies in its ability to inspire a kindred spirit. That ability hinges on how the coup makers choose react to it. Suppression is sure to augment its power and cause resistance to multiply.

See also this video by The Economist on Thailand’s historic efforts at democracy. Although I feel that it glances over the corruption issues faced by the Shinawatra family.

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