Hearts On Fire

Self-immolation as political protest

by by Kate Welsh

illustration by by Robert Sandler

When a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2011, he sparked the Arab Spring, a protest movement that eventually spread to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain. He set himself ablaze to protest his treatment by police, who had harassed him and threatened to take away his cart—his sole source of income. Mohamed’s cousin Ali filmed the immediate aftermath from a mobile phone and posted the video on his Facebook page. On the same day that Mohamed killed himself, hundreds and then thousands of Tunisians saw what, for many, was a reflection of their own sense of despair in the face of political oppression.

In the year since Bouazizi’s suicide, men and women have participated in a wave of self-immolation across the region. Five men self-immolated in Morocco in January, and on February 4, two Pakistani employees of the Karachi Electric Supply Company set themselves alight in protest of the company’s unjust labor practices.

The self-immolations has not been confined to the Middle East.  In recent months, a 56-year-old Russian woman self-immolated in front of the Moscow White House, apparently to protest the Putin regime. In China, three Tibetan herders self-immolated in protest of the government’s political and religious oppression—adding to the 23 Tibetans who have publicly set themselves on fire this year. In the town of Aba, where more than half of the self-immolations have occurred, Chinese police officers in fire trucks park outside the main monastery.

In the Arab world, these self-immolations have provoked horror and wonder. Some commentators declared Bouazizi a martyr, a representative of the crowds of students and unemployed protesting against poor living conditions.  But others, including many clerics, disagree. Al Azhar, the Cairo university that is the oldest and most prestigious center of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a fatwa in January reaffirming that suicide violates Islam even when it is carried out as a social or political protest.

Thich Quang Duc
Burning oneself as political protest is not new. One of the most infamous moments of politically motivated self-immolation was that of Thich Quang Duc in 1963. Protesting the religious repression of Buddhist monks by the Christian (and American-backed) South Vietnamese government, Quang Duc doused himself in gasoline in the middle of a Saigon street and set himself ablaze—thus creating one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War.  David Halberstam, one of the few reporters at the scene, wrote in the New York Times, “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh. Human beings burn surprisingly quickly… I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.”

Malcolm Browne’s photograph of the burning Duc was featured on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. In Europe, the photographs were sold on the streets as postcards, and the Chinese government distributed millions of copies of the photo throughout Asia and Africa as evidence of “US imperialism.”

Many Buddhist authorities say that suicide cannot be reconciled with their religious tradition. But in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, scriptures exalt burning as a form of religious devotion. The Fire Sermon, one of Buddha’s most famous teachings, uses the metaphor of burning body parts to emphasize the impermanence of the human body. An ascetic strain among Chinese and Korean Buddhists embrace gestures of painful self-sacrifice, from the burning of fingers to self-immolation. But although the trope of all-encompassing flame pervades Buddhist thought, before Duc’s act self-immolation had never been so public or explicitly political. Dr. Robert Shard, chairman at the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times, “Full-body immolation is rarely done solely as a religious practice. It is more typically a form of political protest.”

Body as site of protest 
Halberstam’s sense of confusion and bewilderment reflects a visceral reaction we all have: how could someone do such a brutal thing to herself? Perhaps a way to understand is through comparison to the hunger strikes. Unlike suicidal terrorism, these forms of protest are not impelled by the promise of salvation. The Irish hunger strike of 1981 provides illuminating comparison. Five years prior, imprisoned Irish Republican Army members enacted a so-called “dirty strike” in order to regain their status as political, rather than criminal, prisoners. This distinction underscored the point that they were soldiers in a legitimate war and deserved to be treated as enemy combatants, rather than as common criminals. Their insistence on retaining their warrior identity sent the message to all Irish Republicans that they were still fighting the same struggle that transcended the walls of the infamous Maze jail. During the Dirty Protest, prisoners refused to wash, wear prison uniforms, or clean up their own excrement.  After five years of this protest, about 20 of the prisoners began a hunger strike lasting 217 days. When the tenth prisoner died of starvation, the British government finally acceded to their demands.

The prisoners at Maze demonstrated that while the imprisoned body is at the mercy of its external environment, it still retains a stunning communicative power at the service of its owner. They recognized that pain is one’s own to bestow. The stench of their excrement oozing throughout their isolation cells mocked their guards, who could lock away the prisoners’  bodies, but not their bowel movements. Deprived of food, they fed on the manna of moral triumph.

Self-immolation is dying with a message, for a message, and of a message. The body becomes the site on which self-destructive replication denounces the wrongs that humans have wrought.

Wave of imitation
As a result of Quang Duc’s act in 1963, self-immolation entered the global repertoire of protest. Within South Vietnam, it galvanized popular discontent and set off a series of copycat self-immolations. Four monks and a nun burned themselves to death before the regime was toppled by a coup. In 1966, another wave of self-immolations protested the American-backed military regime. Thirteen men and women set themselves on fire in one week, and laypeople soon began to follow suit. Three Americans, in explicit imitation of Quang Duc, burned themselves to death in 1965—perhaps to denounce their country’s guilt, perhaps to alleviate some of it by their sacrifice, perhaps simply to urge an end to the slaughter. By the end of 1969, Quang Duc’s act had been repeated over eighty times, and in many places far removed from Saigon, according to a study by Michael Biggs of Oxford University. The model of sacrificial protest by burning was now truly available for any cause.

Since the Vietnam War, there have been many politically motivated self-immolations, but none have been as effective in attracting media attention or galvanizing resistance. In some cases, the authorities have been too powerful. Few people today remember Homa Darabi, the Western educated child psychiatrist who set herself on fire in a crowded Tehran square in 1994. A month earlier, a 16-year-old girl was shot to death for wearing lipstick, and Darabi—who refused to wear the veil—had seen enough. She shouted, “Down with tyranny, long live liberty, long live Iran!” as the flames engulfed her. If any pictures were taken, none remain.  The news media barely covered the story, and the Ayatollah denounced her as mentally unstable. In 2001, five Chinese citizens and alleged members of Falun Gong set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square. Ultimately, the Chinese government turned the 2001 self-immolations against the Falun Gong, using it as further evidence of the group’s status as a dangerous cult. When at least three Americans in 1991 self-immolated in protest of United States policy in the Persian Gulf, many people recoiled from the protesters as lunatics.

Why do some politically motivated self-immolations have such a widespread effect, while others are denounced or slip into oblivion? Despite the horror of any of these stories, the suicides of Quang Duc and Bouazizi provoked by far the most public outcry and political reshuffling. The notoriety achieved by these two figures seems to rely on a perfect storm of media attention, a wave of imitators, and simmering widespread public discontent.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s immolation and the subsequent demonstrations were precipitated by high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, and political oppression. Within hours of setting himself on fire, residents of Bouazizi’s town, Sidi Bouzid, began rioting. Video clips of those protests spread like wildfire throughout Tunisia and the rest of the Middle East. Five-thousand people attended his funeral, and protests continued to build for the next two weeks, until President Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia. Bouazizi’s grave has become a shrine, drawing a stream of visitors with flowers and Tunisian flags.  The symbolic build-up to his funeral and the memorialization of his grave made the protest easily accessible to Tunisians and provided them with continual opportunities to remain involved. Three weeks later, another man’s burnt offering in Algeria further amplified Bouazizi’s voice. The perseverance of the Arab Spring protesters prevented the immolation from becoming yesterday’s news.  They claimed kinship with the spirit of his sacrifice—they, too, were willing to sacrifice their bodies in Tahrir Square. As a political tool, self-immolation is rarely successful, except in the rare instances that others take up the torch—figuratively, and, perhaps, literally.

KATE WELSH B’12 is media attention.