How hunger strikes became a powerful tool against oppression

Supporters of the anti-establishment movement are calling on two detained protest leaders to end their hunger strike as concerns for their health grow.

The calls are mounting as Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak begins his second month without solid food, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul enters her third week of fasting. The duo launched their hunger strikes to press for the release of 21 detained political activists.

The activists have been detained for participating in anti-establishment rallies and charged with serious crimes including sedition and lese majeste. Their requests for bail were rejected on grounds that they had already failed to follow Criminal Court conditions for their release.

Parit, meanwhile, is mulling how to respond to the pleas for him to end his fasting protest. Thanking his supporters for their concern, Parit said he needed time to make a decision. Panusaya expressed gratitude for the concern but said: “I’m okay. My blood pressure and other [readings] are still normal. I’m happy that you haven’t forgotten me.”

Voices of concern

Academics Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Prajak Kongkirati have joined Parit and Panusaya’s families and friends in calling for them to end their hunger strikes soon, to “save themselves to see the future of the change they have started”.

The Ratsadon anti-establishment movement has asked supporters to write letters asking the duo to call a halt to their protests. Meanwhile the Nisit Chula Party last week launched a Twitter campaign calling on supporters to fast once a week in solidarity. Many students have joined up. A Buddhist monk and two laymen have also begun fasting outside the Criminal Court in support of the two protest leaders.

Confronting those in power

Parit and Panusaya are not the first Thais to go on hunger strike for their political cause – a form of protest that has a long global tradition. The pair were almost certainly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who undertook at least 18 hunger strikes while leading India’s non-violent civil disobedience movement against British colonial rulers.

The most famous hunger striker in Thai political history is the politician Chalad Worachat, who is credited with helping bring down a dictatorship.

In April 1992, Chalad began starving himself in protest against coup-leader General Suchinda Kraprayoon becoming prime minister.

Like many other hunger strikers, Chalad’s protest was ridiculed and dismissed by those in power at the time. His cause gained momentum and widespread attention only after popular politician Chamlong Srimuang joined him.

Their protest led to massive pro-democracy rallies that culminated in a bloody military crackdown, which in turn led to Suchinda’s downfall.

Powerful political tool

In the early 20th century, self-starvation quickly became a perilous but powerful tool for political prisoners. The powerless chose to harm themselves as a way of shaming their oppressors.

The first famous hunger striker in modern times was British suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, who began refusing food in prison in 1909 to fight for women’s right to vote. After 91 hours of self-starvation, she was released from prison. Gandhi, a lawyer in London at the time, was among the crowd that heard the speech she delivered after being released.

Prof Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, says that though Chalad’s hunger strike was met with ridicule by the powers-that-be, society in general has a humanitarian reaction to hunger strikers.

Effects of self-starvation

Hunger strikes are a form of resistance designed to provoke feelings of guilt in others, especially those in positions of authority. Most hunger strikers refuse to eat solids, limiting themselves to a liquid diet.

Over the first three days without food, the body uses up its store of glucose for energy. Then, the liver starts processing body fat, and the body enters “ketosis”, producing ketones to use as fuel.

Once the fat store is exhausted, the body enters “starvation mode” and starts harvesting muscles and vital organs for energy. At this stage, the loss of bone marrow becomes life-threatening. Hunger strikers can last anything from 46 to 73 days before dying.

Dr Somsak Akksilp, director-general of the Department of Medical Services, said humans can generally live for up to seven days without food or water, depending on their health.

If only liquids are taken, a human can survive for up to 30 to 45 days. To last longer than that, hunger strikers must keep their physical activity down to a minimum, the doctor said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk 


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