The hunger strike is a form of political protest by means of self-starvation. Throughout modern history, hunger strike has been a powerful non-violent political action that has successfully shaken up the political structures of many countries around the world. The hunger strikes of Mahatma Gandhi in British-occupied India, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, and Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army, made these people the symbol of their nation’s conscience.
Today marks the first week of the hunger strike of political prisoners in detention centers nationwide. Hundreds of political prisoners in the country have staged a full blown hunger strike last July 25 that coincided with the second State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.
The political prisoners now numbering to more than two hundred have taken this political action not only to call on the President to pay attention to the plight of all political prisoners and act on their immediate release but also to protest over the death of political prisoner Mariano Umbrero who died without receiving pardon on humanitarian ground.
Tatay Umbrero, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer died at the National Bilibid Prison on July 15. What adds injury to insult is that four days later he was given an executive clemency by the president.
This prompted human rights groups, peoples’ organizations, religious groups and supporters to hold a solidarity fast inside the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) compound on July 28 to support the political prisoners’ demand for human rights and freedom.
The faux pas on the issuance of pardon for a dead man typifies the current administration’s lack of clear perspective on human rights. If the President could not immediately act on appeal for humanitarian ground, how could we expect him to act on more pressing issues like ending impunity and guaranteeing justice?
President Aquino as a son of a notable political prisoner and human rights victim under the Marcos dictatorship is expected to know better the plight of political prisoners and victims of human rights violations in the country. However, his first two SONAs ironically were completely devoid of clear human rights platform that could have addressed these issues and concerns.
With the nationwide hunger strike of political prisoners in full scale, his action or inaction will be a “make or break” for his administration. Acting on it will give more flesh to his government’s vision of “matuwid na daan”. But ignoring it will mean facing a big hurdle in treading this path. This is the political challenge of the hunger strike. The ball is now in the hands of the President. His integrity is now on the line. He should act NOW and act decisively and urgently to avoid tainting his hands with bloods of political prisoners who are hungry for freedom.
It is about time for the government to consider the political prisoners as such. They are not the ultimate problem but just a symptom of the endemic social disease. They only symbolize the unfulfilled aspirations and the unfinished revolution. The government which is installed for the greater demand of change can never realize peace and reconciliation it seeks without addressing the conditions that breed political imprisonment and the roots of social injustice.
If Pres. Aquino believed that his government’s major achievement so far is the transformation of the people’s attitude toward the government, the hunger strike of political prisoners is the major challenge on how government can transform not only the attitude but the lives of the people even those who aspire for change yet languish behind bars.