The three fingers in Thailand - anti-coup, pro-coup or Hunger Games?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Supporters of Thailand’s military junta are trying to hijack a gesture used by demonstrators opposed to last month’s coup, saying the three-fingered salute signifies the ills of the deposed government, and not resistance to the takeover.

A masked demonstrator gestures during a brief protest against military rule at a shopping mall in Bangkok June 1, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The salute, inspired by the hit film “The Hunger Games”, has been flashed as a symbol of defiance at street protests in Bangkok since the weekend. The military government, which sent thousands of troops and police onto the streets to stifle public dissent, has warned demonstrators against making the salute.

Security forces detained at least seven people who joined flash mob protests over the weekend and held up three fingers against the junta, according to the ruling National Council for Peace and Order.

“We are monitoring those who use this signal but have no plans to ban it yet,” deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree told Reuters.

“But if there are gatherings of five people or more doing this salute, then we will make arrests in some cases.”

The military has banned political gatherings of more than five people and has tried to enforce a ban on criticism of the coup since taking power.

Protesters have ascribed more than one meaning to the salute. Some say it stands for the tripartite French slogan - liberty, equality and brotherhood. Others say the symbol is a reference to the Hunger Games, the movie based on the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins.

That story is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the country of Panem where the wealthy Capitol rules over twelve poorer districts. The salute symbolizes rebellion against totalitarian rule, hence its adoption by those in Thailand opposed to military rule.

Pro-establishment groups have pilloried the gesture on social media with a graphic saying the fingers represent a corrupt government rice-buying scheme, disrespect to the monarchy and destruction of the country - all ascribed to the deposed government.

The groups welcome military intervention as a way to get Thailand back in order after months of turmoil when protesters tried to force out the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Editing by Alan Raybould and Raju Gopalakrishnan