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

Turkey's Controversial Reform Bill Giving Investors Jitters

Homeland security reform bill will give police new powers in search, seizure, detention and arrests, while restricting the rights of suspects, their attorneys More

Audio Slideshow In Kenyan Prison, Good Grades Are Path to Freedom

Some inmates who get high marks could see their sentences commuted to non-custodial status More

'Rumble in the Jungle' Turns 40

'The Champ' knocked Foreman out to regain crown he had lost 7 years earlier when US government accused him of draft-dodging and boxing officials revoked his license 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.
Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisiai
X
Henry Ridgwell
October 30, 2014 11:39 PM
Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid