Hunger strikers make merit

fas fa-pencil-alt
Paisal Visalo - บางกอกโพสต์ 
fas fa-calendar
13 สิงหาคม 2543

Hired mobsters may jump at every opportunity to unleash turmoil-blaring their noises, blocking streets, hurling stones at their opponents. But will they let themselves be beaten up by the police ?Those "greedy" villagers may be willing to march through heat and rain, issuing threats to descend on Government House. But will they risk their own health starving for an indefinite period? Even a week would have been too long.

Those who stage a hunger strike out of self-interest will soon have to give up. No amount of money is worth putting one's life in jeopardy.

The attempt by villagers-under the umbrella of the Assembly of the Poor-to enter Government House last month, despite the perils of a violent crackdown, should be more than enough proof that they are not hirelings. These people travelled to Bangkok after years of suffering. Clearly, the drive of poverty is far more painful than the bruises and wounds wrought by police batons.

Today the accusation of hirelings may start to fade away. But not the stigma of greediness, charged by both the government and a large number of Bangkokians.

Accordingly, the villagers had no other ways to counter those accusations than to resort to fasting. Their hunger strike was not only to prove their sincerity, but also to remind themselves they are on the right path.


Hunger striking is a form of peaceful struggle. But the ultimate goal is not only to push for political or social changes, but also to purify the minds of the doers. Thus this kind of strike is inseparable from self-purification. After all, it has long been accepted in medical fields that occasional fasting helps cleanse the body of toxins.

Spiritually, going on fasting also helps calm one's mind and get rid of fanciful thoughts (as the body functions more slowly). Desires like sexual lust and greed will dissipate leading to a feeling of lightness. A number of people practising dhamma have adopted fasting for a couple of days as part of their routines.

Likewise, many non-violent protesters choose fasting or hunger striking as a means to protest. By subjecting themselves to suffering deliberately, they hope to lessen the anger, hatred or selfishness that could occur during the confrontation.

At the same time, they take the opportunity to re-examine their action-whether they do it for the public interest or personal gain, to maintain righteousness or to serve their personal ambition. Fasting helps people see themselves clearly because during that time, desire loosens its grip on the spirit. The calm and conscious mind will reflect who we truly are.

Non-violent methods are powerful only when they are based on dhamma. For this reason, practitioners of non-violence must review themselves constantly and steer their course of action along the dhamma way if they are to achieve their goals.

This is one of the reasons why members of the Assembly of the Poor decided to stage a hunger strike. Some said they did so because they would like to practise dhamma. In other words, these protesters wish to conduct a self-analysis to ensure that it was not greed that sent them to camp out in front of Government House. Some said they would like to extend the merit to the government. Compassion emerges when the mind is freed from hatred. Fasting, which reduces the extreme emotion, facilitates the process of transferring merit.

The hunger strike is a means for the villagers to prove to themselves and the public whether they are protesting for themselves or for countless other people who are suffering from unfair development. It is a test because only people with dhamma can stay strong with no sustenance. Selfish people would lack the will to go on with the painful method.

And it is only when the minds of the protesters are focused on dhamma that the hunger strike is in line with the Buddhist way, even if it could result in death. Lord Buddha himself once said: Virtuous people should abandon wealth to preserve organs, abandon organs to preserve life and abandon wealth, organs and life in recognition of dhamma.

At the end of the day, the hunger strike is but a way for members of the Assembly of the Poor to tell Thai society that the misery they are experiencing is much worse than the pain of hunger. Also, the justice they are asking for is so valuable that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for it.


Today, the Assembly of the Poor has proven to Bangkok people that they are not a greedy lot with insatiable demands. Now, it is the city dwellers' turn to prove that they are not that greedy either. To accuse the poor of having an insatiable demand while they live comfortably would be blatantly unfair. However, a few well-to-do middle class people continue to demand that the rural folks give up their sources of livelihood (forests and rivers) for the sake of cheap electricity and tapwater. The villagers now protesting in front of Government House have long seen themselves plunging deeper into the pit of poverty, as people like us become richer. Shall we continue to turn a blind eye to their plight, telling them to be patient forever? If we maintain our indifference to their suffering-then we should at least tell the government who is in fact greedier.

Paisal Visalo is the abbot of the Sukhato Forest Monastery in Chaiyaphum province. He is also a writer and social thinker whose views are widely respected.