Magazine

Asia’s Youth in Revolt

In Thailand, Myanmar, and Hong Kong, Asia’s brave youth go toe-to-toe with history.

Asia’s Youth in Revolt

A pro-democracy activist, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa gestures with a three-fingers salute, a symbol of resistance as he arrived at the Attorney General office in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, March 8, 2021.

Credit: AP Phioto/Sakchai Lalit

Today’s protests in Thailand join adjacent movements in Myanmar and Hong Kong where young people, often still in their teens and 20s, feel compelled to challenge entrenched systems of privilege, violence, and authority. This generation of activists were raised in technology-saturated homes, where connections regionally and globally have allowed culture and influence to spread at remarkable speeds. With the three-fingered “Hunger Games” salute as an obvious example, meme-worthy content has shifted the expectations of an entire generation.

Activists in all three countries, and more widely in East and Southeast Asia, see themselves connecting, in real-time, to share struggles against authoritarian regimes and the political manipulation that has constrained representative democracy in their countries. This pan-regional activist cooperation is known as the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a loose constellation across different societies all working against the further entrenchment of authoritarian powers. The generational divide is stark.

Now it is the digital natives – born into societies that had already accumulated the new technologies of rapid-fire communication and social interaction – that are furious with the abandonment of democracy by their elders.

While some activists may still look to the United States or other distant democracies for inspiration, many find aspirational models in popular culture’s re-configurations of justice and freedom. For many, the “Hunger Games” trilogy set out human aspirations for self-determination in a fictionalized dystopian, authoritarian quagmire.

In that story, young, fit, brave fighters compete with each other, representing their downtrodden districts in battles designed to distract attention from injustice and exploitation. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, ends up taking on the powerbrokers who benefit from a rigged system, inspiring a rebellion.

After Thailand’s 2014 coup against the government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the first defiant protesters on the streets of Bangkok co-opted the now famous three-fingered “Hunger Games” salute as a symbol of their solidarity. It is a generational marker, too, one that speaks to the shared Hollywood ideals that have shaped a whole generation’s political awareness across Asia.

They are aware that previous generations also struggled, often in bloody contests, to re-shape the region’s politics. And they know there are real consequences for those who take on the governments of Thailand, Myanmar, and China. People disappear. Others are condemned to long periods of detention on what would, in other political contexts, usually be considered spurious grounds. And then some are killed – often in cold blood by military and police forces empowered to take the fight to unarmed dissenters.