News / Asia

Social Injustice Fuels Self-Immolation Protests

Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso sets herself ablaze in Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan, in this still image taken from video shot November 3, 2011.
Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso sets herself ablaze in Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan, in this still image taken from video shot November 3, 2011.
William Ide

A growing number of Tibetans in China have set themselves on fire in recent months to draw attention to what they consider to be Beijing’s cultural and religious repression. This wave follows the self-immolation of dozens in Tunisia and other countries swept up in the Arab Spring. The suicidal act, while making new headlines, has a long history of being used as a political tool around the world.

In 1963, Buddhists in South Vietnam were facing discrimination by the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a member of the Catholic minority. The treatment became intolerable for many, and one monk, Thich Quong Duc, made a decision that would have a resounding impact on Vietnam and beyond.

“Thich Quong Duc sets himself on fire, and that becomes a major news story all over the world,” recalled Michael Biggs, a sociologist at Oxford University and the author of “Dying Without Killing,” a history of self-immolations.

The iconic image of the monk engulfed in flames was captured in a prize-winning photograph.

“And as a result of that, not only do other people in Vietnam start using that action, but other people in other places completely unconnected with Vietnam start using it as well,” said Biggs.

Some of these images may be disturbing.

Beyond borders

These acts of desperation have been mostly concentrated in Asia, but there have also been incidents in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the United States.

In 1969, Jan Palach set himself on fire in then-Czechoslovakia to protest the occupation of his country by Soviet troops.

In South Korea, pro-democracy and labor rights advocates used self-immolation as a political tool before the country became democratic.

And when India’s government pursued affirmative action policies in 1990, students set themselves on fire to protest the decision to give underprivileged castes more opportunities.

Personal is political

Self-immolation does not always bring about the desired reforms, but the decision to burn oneself to death is a powerful outlet, particularly in countries where there is no democratic means to address injustices.

Rodger Baker of the global intelligence firm Stratfor says there are a number of motivating factors.

“It is an attempt to draw attention to, in a very drastic manner, some form of political change or political injustice. So, when you see it with the Tibetans, it is about the Chinese domination of Tibet, but it also may be seen as an economic protest. What we saw in Tunisia, for example, was political, but it was also economically motivated,” he said.

Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki places flowers at the tombstone of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old who set himself alight on Dec. 17, 2010
Tunisian President, Moncef Marzouki places flowers at the tombstone of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old who set himself alight on Dec. 17, 2010

Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, an act widely seen as the start of the revolution that brought down the government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali  and fueled the Arab Spring. Others in North Africa followed in his footsteps, showing that self-immolation has the ability to cross not only national boundaries, but religious barriers as well, said Baker.

“In Islam, as in Christianity, the concept of suicide is very much against what they do, and in some sense in North Africa, it’s sort of like saying, ‘I’d rather die in hell than live on Earth,’” he said.

Silent stoicism

Baker says one of the reasons why self-immolation is so powerful, rallying supporters to a cause and drawing international attention, is because of its visual imagery.

“You don’t see self-immolators who are running around screaming in pain. The whole point is to have that added element in many ways of stoicism. For most people, the concept of even burning yourself on the stove is something that you can already feel just by talking about, and it’s extremely painful. The idea of lighting oneself on fire is beyond the level of pain that most people are willing to endure,” he said.

Self-immolators are sometimes called “terrorists” by the governments they’re protesting. That’s not the case, according to Biggs.

He says suicide bombers rely heavily on organization, access to bomb-making techniques and logistical support. But self-immolation is different.

“It’s something that ordinary people, occasionally, almost spontaneously decide to do as a kind of an act of will of their own individual decision,” he said. “And often we find organizations condemning the act and telling the people, ‘No, no, we don’t want people to do this.’”

State action

Governments also find it difficult to respond to such actions, says Baker.

“Even when we see, for example, a group of people self-immolate, rarely are they coming out of a larger group who says, ‘Why don’t you guys go burn yourselves, and next week we’ll go burn ourselves,’” he said. “And this is one of the challenges China has had because they are trying to portray it as, ‘Okay, the Dalai Lama is telling these people to go out and burn themselves.’ But it’s a very difficult argument for them to make that that is the case.”

Beijing has, in rare cases, seen self-immolation work in its favor. When followers of the Falun Gong movement carried out a series of self-immolations in China more than a decade ago, one woman took along her daughter to Tiananmen Square, where the girl also set herself on fire.

Biggs says that is one of the only cases of self-immolation in recent history where the act hurt the cause and helped the government the activist was rallying against.

VOA News will host a Google Plus Hangout to discuss this issue and other matters relating to China. Please join William Ide for a discussion at 0330 UTC Thursday.

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More