02:11 - Source: CNN
5 arrested for 'Hunger Games' salute

Story highlights

NEW: "Life in Thailand is growing more absurd by the day," rights advocate says

NEW: Prime Minister said, "Anyone else want to protest?" after students taken away

Several students around Thailand detained after flashing "Hunger Games" salute

Official says Thailand's military government has been "very lenient" toward activists

(CNN) —  

What would Katniss do?

The central figure in “The Hunger Games,” the hit sci-fi series about an oppressed people’s struggle against a totalitarian regime, is being evoked for real, now, in Thailand among university students expressing their opposition to that southeast Asian nation’s military rulers.

Several students, from Bangkok to about 450 kilometers (280 miles) away to the northeast, have been detained in recent days after flashing the signature anti-establishment, three-fingered salute from”The Hunger Games.”

By Thursday evening, all of those held had been released, according to lawyers. At that point, according to Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk, about 100 police and military troops had congregated then at a busy cinema in the Thai capital where “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1” was set to debut.

’Prohibited by martial law’

Asked about the arrests of students who flashed the salute and others accused of organizing a protest meeting revolving around the Jennifer Lawrence-starring movie, a government official told CNN that the “military is working on reducing conflicts from various political groups.” Allowing such political statements, he said, could inflame tensions in the unsettled nation.

“Seeing a movie is a personal thing, and they all have a right to do that,” said Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkumnerd. “But if, after seeing the movie, there are political activities involved, this is prohibited by martial law, which has been imposed since (last May’s) military intervention.”

Sansern added, “If we allow one group to hold political activities, then (other) groups would want to do the same thing. We would never achieve peace and order, which we are trying to restore.”

Yet there’s little indication the opposition is going away, nor is there anything like national elections on the immediate horizon suggesting a return to civilian rule.

Military takes over in Thailand

Opposition uses pop culture

Such political turmoil is hardly new to Thailand. Its military has attempted 19 coups – 12 of them successful – in the past 80 years.

The world, of course, has changed a lot over that time, as have the tools and inspirations of opposition groups.

One protest leader, Sombat Boonngamanong, has been especially pivotal in using pop culture references straight out of Hollywood to spread the movement’s message.

That includes the story of Katniss Everdeen – a teenage girl who competes in a spectacle of blood lust known as the Hunger Games and becomes a leader in the revolution against a tyrannical government.

A “Hunger Games” fan club, which consists of university students calling for democracy in Thailand, had planned to meet for the latest film’s showing Thursday at one Bangkok theater.

But the showing at that theater and three others that are part of the same Apex chain was canceled – for “technical” reasons, according to the chain.

Ratthapon Supasopon, from the League of Liberal Thammasart for Democracy, said the theater’s management gave them refunds for tickets they had bought in advance. That meant they couldn’t watch the movie there, but – with it opening elsewhere around Thailand – the group still planned to meet and see the film somewhere else.

Some detained students sign agreement

A young activist, Bangkok University student Natchacha Kongudom, was taken to a police station and then to a military facility for flashing the Hunger Games salute at a Bangkok cinema, according to her friend Ratthapon. Natchacha was let go hours later, after signing an agreement promising not to take part in future political activities, human rights lawyer Anond Numpa said.

Five Khon Kaen University students were asked to sign the same such agreement Thursday, a day after they were detained for eight hours after throwing up the three-fingered salute while wearing shirts bearing the words “Don’t want a military coup.”

Video from CNN affiliate Channel 3 shows students being led away by authorities, a few feet from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, after revealing their shirts and holding their fingers aloft.

“It is OK, just gently take them away, we will definitely take care of them,” Prayuth said from a stage, where he was addressing civil servants. “This just makes things more difficult if we don’t understand each other.”

The grinning Prime Minister then elicits laughs by saying, “Anyone else want to protest?”

Two of the students ending up signing the agreement vowing not to partake in political activities, but the others refused. After intense talks, those three were let go without any conditions – though by then they didn’t want to go home out of fear of the military, according to Phavinee Chumsri, from the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Invited to have an ‘attitude adjustment’

Sansern, the military government’s spokesman, said Prayuth – who was the army’s chief before taking over as prime minister following the May coup – told him what happened in Khon Kaen was “very minor” and that he thinks “they are still very young.”

“When they grow up they will understand in what we are doing,” Sansern said, summarizing Prayuth’s sentiments.

As to how the government is handling dissent, the major general insisted the “military have been very lenient toward these activists.”

“We’ll try to negotiate first, but if they still refuse to listen to us, we’d try to convince them through their parents,” he said. “And lastly, we would invite them to have attitude adjustment.”

John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director, thinks it’s Thailand’s military government that needs an adjustment.

“Life in Thailand is growing more absurd by the day,” he says, and “all evidence suggests the so-called roadmap to democracy … is really a roadmap to nowhere.”

“Someone needs to inform General Prayuth that if his system of government is threatened by young people emulating a Hollywood movie,” Sifton adds, “it is (a) pretty sure sign that things need to change.”

CNN’s Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok and Greg Botelho wrote this story from Atlanta.