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Explained: What the ‘three-finger salute’ seen at Myanmar protests means

A striking feature of the protests is the three-finger salute displayed by pro-democracy activists, a symbol of resistance that was also seen in October last year.

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 15, 2021 9:06:20 pm
Buddhist monks flash three-fingered defiance salute during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP)

Since Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1 by ousting Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, there have been growing civil protests in the Southeast Asian country against the coup.

A striking feature of the protests is the three-finger salute displayed by pro-democracy activists, a symbol of resistance that was also seen in October last year at demonstrations against the monarchy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in neighbouring Thailand.

What does the three-finger salute mean?

The gesture, which traces its origins to the Hunger Games books and movies by Suzanne Collins, was first used by medical workers in Myanmar protesting against the coup. It was then adopted by youth protesters, and subsequently was seen at the massive protests in Yangon on Monday, a week after the forceful takeover.

In the Hunger Games franchise, the salute, in which three middle fingers are raised, and the thumb crosses over them to reach the pinky finger is displayed by oppressed people to express solidarity in a dystopian world ruled by a tyrant called President Snow. The gesture was popularised by a character called Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence in the films.

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Demonstrators display placards calling for the release of detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and flash three-fingered salutes, a symbol of resistance, against the military coup during a protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP)The salute first became an anti-coup symbol in Southeast Asia in 2014, when youths in Thailand gathered in front of a shopping mall to signal their opposition to a military takeover that took place that year. When one of the activists raised their hand in a three-fingered salute, others who were part of the rally followed.

The new form of silent protest resonated across the country for its anti-authoritarian message. It was imitated at more rallies, and the Thai military reacted by having the salute banned. Despite the ban, the salute has been at several protests in Thailand since 2014. The symbol was also seen at Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in 2014.

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In Myanmar, which saw democratic reforms start from 2010, a rapid rise in internet access has meant that the country’s new generation has access to global popular culture, and young activists are using its symbols, such as popular memes, at protests.

Among the characters that young Burmese protesters are displaying include Pepe the Frog, which was used in the US in 2016 as a symbol of the far-right, and Doge and Cheems figures, used at the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, according to The Guardian.

According to a Business Insider report, protesters have also attached red ribbons, a symbol of solidarity, to their lapels and have carried red flower cuttings at rallies.

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