Striking with Their Lives
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Striking with Their Lives

By KYAW ZWA MOE Saturday, November 5, 2011


On Sept 10, 1929, U Wisara took his last breath after having fasted for 166 days in jail. The Buddhist monk, 41, refused to eat because he had been denied permission to wear his saffron robe and participate in twice-monthly religious observances at a temple. His British jailers refused to give in to his demands, and so his long hunger strike ended in death.

The patriotic monk is believed to have been the first Burmese hunger striker to die as a prisoner of Burma's British colonial rulers. He was arrested several times after 1926 for inciting sedition in public, and he often refused to eat while in custody to obtain his rights as a monk. But the riskiest non-violent method failed to win over his British captors.

Aung Kyaw Moe(left), U Wisara
To this day, Burmese regard U Wisara as a martyr. In Rangoon, there is a road named after him and a monument erected in his honor. And now, more than 80 years after his death, his method of protest is still occasionally used in Burma's prisons, which for the past half century have been under the control of successive military and authoritarian regimes.

On the hot and humid morning of May 10, 1998, Thein Htoo and six of his fellow inmates at the Tharrawaddy Prison, about 100 km from Rangoon, woke up and immediately swallowed three spoonfuls each of butter.

They also ate pieces of coconut prepared the day before. The previous night, they took laxatives to empty their stomachs. Now the butter and the fat from the coconut flesh would coat the walls of their stomachs, protecting them from the digestive acids that would remain active, even in the absence of food.

Then, their deadly story officially started. The seven political prisoners, including Thein Htoo, informed their jailers that they had stopped eating to protest their continued imprisonment, despite having served the full terms of their sentences. (All of the members of the group had served at least eight years of their 10-year sentences, and were denied the customary one-third reduction of their prison terms because they were illegally connected with the Communist Party of Burma.)

Meanwhile, two of the hunger strikers rushed to the cell of U Zawana, a Buddhist monk, and asked him to pray for them. Their request was one that Buddhists traditionally make for the dead. U Zawana began to chant for them.

The prison authorities and military intelligence officers tried to get them to abandon their strike by using threats and persuasion, but they failed to change the men's minds. All of the strikers were put in solitary confinement cells in the death-row cell block.

Thein Htoo, then 35, didn’t know which cell he had been put in because a hood had been placed over his head before he was taken out of his previous cell-block. In the evening, he said, the authorities stopped giving him drinking water. The next morning, they provided rice porridge, but he refused to eat it, as did the other strikers in their separate cells.

Thein Htoo recalled: “I was fine without eating food, but it was unbearable to go without water, and the weather was so hot, too.”

“Day by day, I felt my body getting hotter. My lips and mouth were drying up. My urine was turning from yellow to red. It was also getting hot, and there was less and less of it,” he said. “I had to turn over on the concrete floor to cool down my body.”

Another thing Thein Htoo couldn’t stand was force-feeding. Around 10 o'clock every morning, a medic and five wardens came into his cell, and while the five wardens tightly gripped his hands and legs, the medic put a tube into his nostril to feed a solution of salt and sugar directly into his stomach.    

“It was unbearable,” he said.

Force-feeding, which is a common way of dealing with hunger strikers—the British also used it on U Wisara—is an inhumane practice, according to World Medical Association. Other methods often used to break hunger strikers include threats and solitary confinement.

These days, there is another, even more effective method used by jailers in Burma and some other countries: depriving hunger strikers of drinking water.

“Cutting water can force a hunger striker to stop fasting much quicker than expected,” Thein Htoo said.

After four days with no food and no water, Thein Htoo ended his strike. He later heard that some of his colleagues stopped even earlier. He was hospitalized in prison.

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Myanmar Patriots Wrote:
Great tragedy: principles without understanding wider issues of state and society and historical perspectives.

Yet, they must be free! Ignorance is no reason for imprisonment and repression. Fight ignorance with proper education.

Ohn Wrote:
Men with principles.

Cowards will kill your body but not the spirit.

Everybody salutes you.

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