As the regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko cracks down on democratically-minded students, the country's youth are taking to hunger strikes to ensure they have the right to continue their educations.
Belarusian authorities are known for their fine touch
Long know for its repressive tactics, Lukachenko's government has banned non-governmental organizations (NGO) and independent media in the former Soviet republic from including the words "Belarus" or "national" in their titles. Two opposition leaders have also just been condemned to two years of hard labor for allegedly "violating public order" when they staged a rally against Lukashenko in 2004.
Such actions have earned Lukashenko stinging criticism from the West for suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But now, young people from Belarus are also voicing their own strong criticism of the authoritarian regime.
Pressure on those parts of the population that support democratic reforms has increased in the past few months, as government leaders of the former Soviet republic who have been in power for the past eleven years fear they may be losing their grip on power. Young people appear to pose the biggest threat, so more activists in democratic youth organizations are being expelled from universities and school because of their political views.
Now, to fight for the right for education, they’re using the last weapon the have: They’re going on hunger strikes. Pavel and Arthur, two students that are no longer permitted to attend university, now gather in front of the lecture hall.
"I was expelled because I attended a rally. I was arrested and sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment. Three days later, I was expelled from the university," said Pavel.
Arthur told a similar tale: "They said I wouldn't be allowed to take an exam and a KGB agent went to my dean and put pressure on him."
Crackdown against democracy
Both young men are active in the "Youth Front" organization. About 2,000 people between 15 and 24 years of age belong to the group that works for democracy and human rights in their country. Since the beginning of the year, 33 young people have been dismissed from the university. Not only college students are endangered, but also high school students. If they are thrown out of school, they have no chance to finish their education, which is supposedly guaranteed by Belarus' constitution.
"At first, we protested against that, but no one heeded our demands. Everything just got worse. So we had to go on a hunger strike. That’s our last hope," said Pavel.
Young demonstrators hold a slogan reading "Down With Tyranny" during a protest against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in central Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2004.
The young people are demanding that the expelled students be permitted back in. The motto of their protest is called "Children Want to Learn" and their logo is a sun rising behind a school desk. Posters with the logo are all over city. More and more young people are going on hunger strikes. At the moment, the number stands at eleven, two of them are minors.
This past weekend, the director of the University's Ideology Department and a police officer visited the hunger-strikers, noted down their names, and suggested they stop. But the protestors won't hear of it.
"We're going to keep going until all the students and pupils can continue their education," said Arthur.
The young protestors are getting support from all sorts of Belarus citizens. Even well-known politicians and celebrities have started a petition in support and are demanding that the Belarussian government stop its repression of the students. Pavel and his fellow activists are optimistic. "We'll succeed in ensuring a safe future for ourselves and our country. We have to stick together right now. That’s the only way we can resist the government. We don't have any other choice," said Pavel.