WASHINGTON, DC—Against strenuous objections from his advisors, President Bush began a hunger strike Monday to protest human-rights abuses in Nepal, vowing to subsist solely on water and vitamin supplements until "the twin clouds of violence and oppression are lifted from the land."
"I can no longer stand idly by while the gentle, peace-loving Nepalese people are made to suffer," said Bush, a longtime admirer of Nepalese culture. "This hunger strike will send a strong message to the government of Nepal and the insurgent Maoist rebels that their suppression of freedom and subjugation of the innocent is not going unnoticed."
Since 1991, Nepal has been locked in a bloody struggle between its constitutional monarchy and the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), a Maoist guerrilla group seeking to overthrow the oft-oppressive regime. Thousands of innocent civilians have lost their lives in the crossfire.
After years of human-rights abuses by both the government and the CPN, Bush felt it was necessary to take action.
"In recent months, there has been a sharp increase in the use of deadly force on both sides," said Bush, seated on a mat in the Rose Garden. "There have been numerous reports of civilians being killed as a reprisal for the death of military police or of CPN army personnel. Things are bad and they're only getting worse. Something had to be done."
Though he is a longtime member of Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, Bush insisted that his protest is not affiliated with any organization. Rather, he said, he is acting as "one man with a conscience."
"Violence only begets more violence," Bush said. "I will be keeping the people of Nepal in my heart and mind."
Many of Bush's critics charge that his hunger strike is, in actuality, a protest against the government, contending that he sides with the CPN.
"I am not in support of the CPN," Bush said. "They, too, have been party to gross human-rights violations, such as recruiting child soldiers and killing civilians they consider 'enemies of the revolution.' I am not taking sides. With this hunger strike, I am merely raising awareness in the hopes that it may help bring about a peaceful end to the conflict."
Bush has also come under fire for hunger-striking instead of using his powerful position as U.S. president to take direct political or military action.
"As my hero Mahatma Gandhi once said, 'You must be the change you wish to see in the world,'" Bush said. "Besides, this is not the will of the American people. This is my fight. I will not let my personal convictions affect my obligation to the American people. Nepal's plight has touched me deeply, and to take direct political action without the mandate of the American people is to go against everything democracy stands for."
"I will try not to let the hunger strike affect my duties as president, but to avoid the strike would be an affront to those who voted me into office," Bush continued. "The American people elected a George W. Bush who acts on his beliefs. To do any less would be to turn my back on my many supporters."
This is not the first time Bush has taken action on behalf of Nepal. In 1997, Bush started a Yahoo! chat group to help disseminate information and news updates on the country's struggle. In July 2000, Bush took time off from his presidential campaign to organize a candlelight vigil in front of the Washington Monument to draw attention to the suffering of the Nepalese.
"It was amazing," Bush said. "We had almost 500 people, twice the number we'd expected. Just to be there, holding hands with a 70-year-old woman who'd lost members of her family to the conflict while listening to a young boy sing 'Ras Triya Gaan' [the Nepalese national anthem] was something I'll never forget."
Worried for his health and fearful of a repeat of a 1998 episode, Bush's top advisors have pleaded with him to limit his hunger strike to 30 days. In early 1998, while governor of Texas, Bush embarked on a two-and-a-half-month hunger strike in protest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, under whose reign thousands of political prisoners disappeared mysteriously.
"[Bush's] work as governor became severely compromised after the first week," recalled Dan Morales, Texas Attorney General under Bush. "He began fainting regularly, but still he refused food, saying that his cause was too important. It wasn't until he developed an extreme case of malnutrition that we finally dragged him to a hospital to feed him intravenously. He was furious, but we felt we had to do it. Lord only knows what would have happened if we hadn't intervened."
Continued Morales: "While I'm sure the president hopes to keep this new hunger strike short, once he's committed himself to a cause, he goes all the way, no matter what the risk to himself."