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.

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

Somalia: No Popular Elections in 2016

In interview Wednesday with VOA, President Mohamud says 'one person, one vote' elections will not be possible due to continuing insecurity More

Scientists Predict Climate Change Will Increase Child Malnutrition

Public health expert in Germany says that by 2050, 25 million more children's lives will be put at risk because of lack of nutrients tied to climate change More

Erdogan in China Amid Tensions on Uighurs, Missile System

Turkey's president has criticized China's heavy-handed policies toward Uighurs in violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where China says it is fighting foreign-backed separatists 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.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs