The Indian Woman Who Has Been On A Hunger Strike For 15 Years

Irom Sharmila, in white.
Irom Sharmila, in white.

DELHI â€" On November 4, 2000, Irom Sharmila, an Indian civil rights activist, began what would become the longest recorded hunger strike ever, protesting against India's military following the killing of 10 civilians in her northeastern state of Manipur.

Fifteen years later, the now 43-year-old has never broken her fast, as The Indian Express reports Wednesday on the anniversary of the strike, noting the activist goes as far as cleaning her teeth with dried cotton so no water passes her lips.

What keeps her alive? Sharmila is force-fed three times per day through a nose-probe in a room at the Imphal Hospital, under police surveillance.

Under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, she has faced charges of attempted suicide, which, until December 2014, was illegal in the country. Sharmila, who has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, has rejected these allegations on many occasions and repeated she was on a hunger strike for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants Indian forces special powers in what the act describes as “disturbed areas.”

The incident that initially prompted the action took place on November 2, 2000 when the Assam Rifles, a government paramilitary force, responded to an attack by anti-government rebels by shooting dead 10 civilians at a bus stop in Imphal, the state capital of Manipur. Sharmila saw the pictures of the dead bodies in the newspaper the following day and started the protest that would earn her the nickname “Iron Lady of Manipur.”

The activist’s hunger strike is the longest in the world and her face appears as a revolutionary emblem for “Repeal AFSPA” on t-shirts across India. This, according to Indian website Catch News, is precisely what Sharmila didn’t want to happen, insisting that she just wanted to lead a normal life while protesting like any ordinary person of good conscience would do.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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