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Burning for the Cause

November 26, 2011

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


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

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.

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