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Fasting without a cause

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He was protesting against international interferences in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, and survived his short-lived action to see his political fortunes decline; so much so that he is in remand prison now charged with misappropriating public property. 

Before any further comment on Weerawansa, it is worth taking a look at others who have gone on hunger strike as a means of protest. 

The list includes people as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi and American actress Mia Farrow. Jailed political activists have died during hunger strikes. There is a strong Indian tradition going back to the Ramayana, but in the West the Irish and the Americans seem to have pioneered this form of protest – men fighting for Irish independence in the first instance and women campaigning for voting rights in the second. 

Thomas Ashe fought in the 1916 Easter rebellion against the British rule and was locked up. He led two hunger strikes in 1917 and died during the second. More recently, the IRA’s Bobby Sands began a hunger strike in 1981 to protest against the removal of ‘Special Category Status’ for jailed IRA members (downgrading their status from political prisoners to criminals) and died after 66 days of hunger strike. In Sri Lanka, Rasaiah Parthipan (Thileepan), the LTTE political leader for Jaffna, died in 1987 after a 12-day hunger strike.

 American Alice Paul, campaigner for women’s voting rights and jailed for ‘obstructing traffic’ with a protest, began a hunger strike. She survived after being force fed, but her protest ignited public opinion and American women earned the right to vote in 1920. 

Filipino-American Cesar Chavez, a key figure in the US farm labour movement, led a strike by Filipino-American farm labourers in 1965 for better wages which continued for five years. In 1968, Chavez began a 25-day hunger strike which turned the tide in favour of his strikers. In 1989, Chavez followed up with a 36-day hunger strike protesting the use of dangerous pesticides. 

Actress Mia Farrow began a hunger strike in 2009, protesting the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. She planned to fast for three weeks but a doctor put an end to her strike after 12 days as her health deteriorated. In 1989, Chinese students began mass hunger strikes as part of Tiananmen Square protests for democracy. 

In all these examples, one can see the protesters were pitting their mortality against forces much larger than themselves, and for the benefit of the common good. Some succeeded while others failed, but one can admire their courage in trying. None of these people was protesting on a personal basis for his or her own benefit. 

In Sri Lanka, we have no long tradition of hunger strikes as a form of political protest, though our overweight politicians can benefit from it. In this context, Wimal Weerawansa is a pioneer of sorts. His first fast, launched when he was politically almighty, achieved nothing. He was protesting against the UN Secretary General and the ‘UN meddling in Sri Lanka’s Sovereignty’ – in other words, that Weerawansa’s brand of alt-right politics should be allowed to thrive without any checks or criticism from anyone. According to a report in the Daily News, Weerawansa gave up his protest after receiving a glass of king coconut water from then president Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

However, this time, he is protesting against being held in remand prison without bail for more than seventy days. He faces charges of misusing government vehicles and causing a loss of Rs. 90 million when in power. If he thinks his fundamental rights are being violated, he can appeal to the Human Rights Commission. If necessary, one of those UN agencies fighting for fundamental rights, the very same people he loathes so much, will come to his aid. He only has to appeal. Instead, he chose the theatricality of a hunger strike. If he had chosen to protest against prison conditions – though people like him are never treated by jailers like ‘common’ prisoners – then it is another matter. But this isn’t even that. It is entirely about self gain, the primary driving force of Wimal Weerawansa’s chequered political career. 

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