Self-immolation in Bulgaria isn’t as new as you might think

Self-immolation in Bulgaria isn’t as new as you might think

For the fourth time in one month, a Bulgarian citizen has self-immolated in an apparent protest against economic hardship and political corruption. The BBC reports:

The man, 52, threw petrol over himself outside the presidential palace in Sofia, police said. Security guards extinguished the flames and he was taken to hospital with severe burns where an official said his life was in danger.

As austerity measures make life increasingly difficult in the beleaguered country, the extreme response from Bulgarians has left the country’s leaders reeling, prompting the resignation of a mayor in the city of Varna and, before that, the fall of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s center-right government.

As an act of political resistance, suicide protest is largely associated with Tibetan monks and Dalit women in India. But while the current outbreak of self-immolations in Bulgaria is shocking, it’s not exactly surprising. The country has a history of grievance driven self-immolation — more than many European countries.

According to a literature review of deliberate self-burning (DSB) over a 20-year period, conducted by Medecins Sans Frontiers in 2003, Bulgaria had an average of 7.4 cases per year (between 1983-2002) and a total number of cases that was only surpassed among European countries studied by the Netherlands. The report, which draws a distinction between psychiatric illness and political motivation as a causal factor, notes that Bulgaria had the lowest correlation to mental illness among European countries studied, with only a third of immolations stemming from clinical psychiatric disorders.

Eastern Europe more generally has a history of self-immolation as a form of political resistance, largely in opposition to Soviet rule. In 2011, Foreign Policy‘s Christian Caryl discussed the most famous case, when the Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969 and caused "a profound ‘moral shock’ to the nation that haunted it for decades to come." The recent Bulgarian cases are similarly haunting, proving once again that self-immolation — while harrowing — is often an effective way of getting the government’s attention.