The Hunger Games have returned to Thailand, but probably not in the way some people would have hoped.
Five university students were arrested in the country on Wednesday for flashing the franchise’s signature three-fingered salute at the country’s prime minister during an official government event ahead of the opening of the film in the country on Thursday.
Hours later, local cinema chain Apex Group, which was scheduled to start screening The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 in its theaters on Thursday, announced that it had pulled the film’s release. The company told the Bangkok Post that it wasn’t pressured by the government, but “did not want to become embroiled in a political movement.”
Apex will instead show Woody Allen‘s Magic in the Moonlight and estimated the change would cost it $30,500 (1 million baht) in lost revenue given that Mockingjay is expected to be among the biggest films of the year. It wasn’t immediately clear how many theaters would be affected by the decision beyond the firm’s two main venues in Bangkok, but the chain is one of the smaller and older cinema chains in the country.
Other Thai theater chains are currently expected to screen the film as planned.
Pro-democracy activists began using the franchise’s memorable protest gesture as an act of defiance during Thailand’s military coup in May. At the time, the military junta threatened to arrest anyone who was caught using it. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha led the controversial military takeover of Thailand’s civilian government after months of paralyzing protests in Bangkok. He was installed as prime minister in August.
In The Hunger Games books and in the film franchise, set in a dystopian future, young people from a rural underclass are forced to engage in a televised blood sport to entertain the elites of the capital city. The fictional resistance movement led by Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, uses the salute as a sign of opposition and solidarity.
Prime Minister Prayut was visiting Thailand’s northeastern province of Khon Kaen, an opposition holdout, to promise the implementation of policies to address problems such as the impact of a recent drought. Most locals had viewed the visit as politically motivated.
As the PM spoke to an assembled crowd, the five students managed to sneak past security and pulled off their T-shirts to reveal shirts underneath reading “We Don’t Want the Coup.” Standing in a row, they briefly held their arms up Hunger Games-style before getting dragged away by military police, according to reports.
According to local paper The Nation, the five were taken to a nearby military camp for an “attitude adjustment.” A local human rights lawyer told the Bangkok Post that the students were forced to sign a document promising not to engage in political activity, under threat of further detainment and expulsion from the law school where they study.
The northeastern region of Thailand where the events took place, known as Isan, is the power base of populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Pheu Thai party, whose supporters are known as “red shirts.”
Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister of Thailand in 2011, but was forced from power by the military in May after months of protests instigated by the pro-royalist, pro-establishment yellow-shirt movement centered in Bangkok. The military Junta has promised to hand back power to civilians after an election to be held in late 2015, but international human rights organizations have decried the military’s suppression of free speech and peaceful assembly in the meantime.