Burning for the Cause

From Tunisia to Tibet, self-immolation is now -- tragically -- back in vogue as a dramatic means of protest. But does it really work?

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

In June 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon and assumed the lotus position. Several other monks poured gasoline over him and retreated to a safe distance. Then he set himself on fire. As recounted by Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs, one of Quang Duc’s students later described him as "sitting bravely and peacefully, enveloped in flames."

The monk’s friends had taken care to ensure that foreign reporters were on the scene, and the photos and TV footage of his blazing body quickly spread around the world. Quang Duc staged his act to protest the presumed anti-Buddhist policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem (a Catholic), but images of this blood-curdling act of self-sacrifice soon became emblems of a broader campaign of resistance against the Vietnam War. Not only did other Vietnamese Buddhist monks follow Quang Duc’s example, but at least three Americans did as well.

Thich Quang Duc’s body may have been consumed by the flames, but nearly half a century later his spirit seems to be more alive than ever. The revolutions that have been coursing around the Middle East started in January 2011, when a Tunisian produce seller set himself ablaze to protest the abuses of local authorities. Mohamed Bouazizi‘s death inspired a series of less-noted but equally horrific acts of public suicide in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and even Mauritania. Since February 2009, meanwhile, at least a dozen Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire to protest a continuing political crackdown by authorities in Beijing. Most have died. The last incident occurred in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu on Nov. 10, when bystanders thwarted an exiled Tibetan’s attempt at self-immolation.

On Wednesday came a report from the Daily Telegraph, which revealed that a Chinese man — in what may have been the first such protest in the heart of Beijing for more than a decade — had failed in an attempt to commit suicide by fire in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 21. The Chinese authorities, who initially passed over the incident in silence, have now admitted that a man identified only as Mr. Wang "took the extreme action because of discontent over the outcome of a civil litigation in a local court." This unusual degree of detail in the government’s statement suggests an eagerness to dispel any connection between Wang’s attempted self-destruction and the recent events in Tibet

Self-immolation as a form of political protest is far more common than you might think. It’s particularly prevalent in countries that are home to many Buddhists and Hindus, who have long ascetic traditions that sometimes involve radical acts of physical self-abnegation. In 1990, for example, more than 200 upper-caste Indians set themselves on fire to protest government plans to reserve spots at university for people from the lower castes. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, an American sociologist who studies nonviolent resistance movements, says that Mahatma Gandhi based his theory of civil disobedience on the Hindu concept of tapasya, the embrace of suffering in the service of a higher cause. (The word literally means "heat.") People sometimes forget, Nepstad says, that Gandhi regarded his activist followers as "nonviolent warriors," ready to die for their cause even as they rejected attacks against others. (Intriguingly, as Nepstad points out, those three Americans who killed themselves to protest the Vietnam War were two Quakers and a left-wing Catholic, all of them members of avowedly pacifist groups.)

None of this is to imply, however, that those monks have obtained religious sanction for their actions. The Buddha, after all, was opposed to any kind of killing at all, suicide included. Earlier this month, the Karampa Lama, the religious successor to the Dalai Lama, called upon Tibetans to forswear suicide in the service of political protest: "I request the people of Tibet to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet."

He was well-advised to do so. The history of self-immolation as a political tool suggests that it is a highly volatile one. Setting oneself on fire can sometimes ignite a huge political protest, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide resonated precisely because he and his supporters carefully calibrated their efforts to attract as much publicity as possible, even handing out prepared leaflets outlining their demands to bystanders. But they may have been the exception to the rule. Most self-immolators don’t seem to think that far ahead. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide had a far greater political impact than that of any of his Arab Spring emulators, clearly had no inkling of the enormous changes his act would unleash.

Whether a political suicide succeeds in igniting mass activism seems to depend largely on the circumstances of the moment. Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of his homeland the previous year, first came up with a harebrained scheme to occupy a government radio station before deciding at the last minute to burn himself in Wenceslas Square. Had he gone ahead with his initial (even more quixotic) plan, he might be remembered rather differently today.

As it happened, his self-sacrifice administered a profound "moral shock" to the nation that haunted it for decades to come, recalls Oldrich Cerny, an ex-activist who now runs a prominent Prague think tank. Palach, he says, "was always with us," right up until the moment in January 1989 when a series of opposition-coordinated events designed to commemorate the student’s sacrifice prompted the Communist government to arrest Vaclav Havel, setting in motion a train of events that culminated with the Velvet Revolution later in the year. Yet skeptics point out that a similar act by a Pole named Richard Siwiec, who also tried to protest the Soviet invasion by setting himself on fire just a few months before Palach, went almost entirely forgotten (perhaps because Siwiec survived).

Self-immolators make a tricky fit with established political organizations: Few leaders are likely to court popularity by inviting their followers to resort to public suicide. The Tibetan monks offer a case in point. Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., says that the suicides pose a "moral dilemma" for the Tibetan opposition in exile, which is doing its best to dissuade would-be self-immolations even as it acknowledges the intense sense of desperation that appears to be driving them.

The last time the Chinese government conducted talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama was in January 2010, two years after a wave of unrest in Tibetan areas throughout southwest China. The absence of dialogue means that people in the region are left with no other channels for expressing their grievances. Several of the monks who have tried to commit suicide come from the monastery of Kirti in northwest Sichuan province, an area that experienced considerable turmoil in 2008 and is now bearing the brunt of an intense security presence. For the moment, self-immolation seems to be one of the only alternatives left to those who would protest.

Needless to say, the challenge that Tibet’s suicidal monks pose to their own leadership is mild compared with the one they present to the Chinese Communist Party. Arming the security forces with fire extinguishers appears just as inadequate as Beijing’s prior efforts to tamp down discontent among Tibetans by enticing them with the carrot of economic development and brandishing the stick of force. The CCP might do well to consider the sad case of President Diem, who tried to counter the protests from his own monks by ordering a series of retaliatory raids on Buddhist temples. Police even seized Quang Duc’s heart, said by pious Buddhists to have survived the flames intact.

None of this, of course, helped to shore up Diem’s corruption-ridden regime, and his administration succumbed to a military coup, quietly encouraged by the Americans, a few months after Quang Duc’s dramatic demise. To be sure, no one can predict quite the same fate for the Chinese government in Tibet. One thing is for sure, though: When people begin to set themselves on fire for the sake of a cause, all bets are off.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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