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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Algerians Vote in Presidential Election

There were few media reports of protests and clashes around the country, but so far no significant violence More

Sharks More Evolved than Previously Thought

The discovery could “profoundly affect our understanding of evolutionary history” More

Pakistan Military Asked to Protect Polio Workers

Request comes as authorities say a Taliban ban on vaccinations in 2012 and deadly attacks on anti-polio teams have prevented thousands of children from getting inoculated 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.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid