Self-immolation as political protest
“The sky stayed blue, the music continued to play. I remember doves. Everything went back to normal.”
Grażyna Niezgoda’s memory of Ryszard Siwiec’s self-immolation
In 2005, the English sociologist Michael Biggs published a study which closely analysed self-immolation as a radical form of political protest. He decided to start his research on 11 June 1963, when Thich Quang Duc immolated himself, becoming the first of many Buddhist monks who chose this shocking act to show their disapproval of the political regime in South Vietnam. Two months later, other people followed suit in Saigon, including a twenty year-old female monk. The Buddhist reasoning behind such acts was to try to move the hearts of their enemies and make them respect religious tolerance. They consistently portrayed their acts as an altruistic sacrifice. According to the French researcher Martin Monestier, such protests can be perceived as rational and logical, since their objective is to instigate a wave of public outrage, to turn the public against the person’s adversary, and to force the latter to adopt the required measures. However, self-immolation as a form of political protest can also be the subject of public scorn, usually in relation to religious or cultural approaches to suicide. Imitating such a form of protest is quite frequent, although it is mostly triggered by psychological or personal issues.
The public dimension of these incidents and media-hype are essential, which is why self-immolations often took place at busy town squares or symbolic places. The burning monks in the streets of Saigon appeared in photographs and on videos taken by western journalists who had been invited in advance. The media made these Buddhists an inspiration for their followers from other cultures. In the ten years leading up to 1963, there had only been five self-immolations in Europe, while in the following ten years, this number rose to 117. The self-immolation of Buddhist monks strongly resonated within the American public, and in the 1960s and 1970s, several people immolated themselves in protest against the US military involvement in the Vietnam War. Michael Biggs analysed 533 sufficiently proven cases of self-immolation from the period between 1963 and 2000 (the estimated number of all cases ranges from 800 to 3000, including failed attempts), and his data suggests that the most prevalent region for self-immolation was Asia with its strong Hindu and Buddhist traditions emphasising the role of the victim and, at the same time, serious religious, ethnic and caste conflicts. The highest number of self-immolations as political protests per capita had been recorded amongst the Kurds living outside Turkey (see Tables 1 and 2).
Last two self-immolation waves occurred in north-African countries (especially in Tunisia) and among the Tibetans protesting against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. According to the Free Tibet data, there were 90 self-immolations from February 2011 to November 2012. The highest number of self-immolations as political protests per capita had been recorded amongst the Kurds living outside Turkey (see Tables 1 and 2).
The first proven cases of self-immolation in the Eastern Bloc date back to 1968 (see Table 3). These cases were also clearly inspired by Buddhist monks, whose actions had often been commemorated by communist propaganda describing them as protests against American imperialism. Protesters in communist countries as well as Buddhists in South Vietnam usually used self-immolation as a disturbing wake-up call for society, the aim of which was to amplify the resistance against authoritative regimes, which were often seen as occupying forces. Their strategies, motives and hopes often differed, though. In the Eastern Bloc, the first person to commit self-immolation was Ryszard Siwiec, a Polish civil servant who was protesting against the August invasion of Czechoslovakia by five Warsaw Pact countries. However, the incident of 8 September 1968 did not have the expected impact and became forgotten, owing in part to the secret police. Palach’s self-immolation, on the other hand, provoked an extraordinary outcry both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. The reactions of people were covered even by the communist media in the Eastern Bloc. In the upcoming months, several people followed Palach’s example: some were Czech ( Jan Zajíc, Evžen Plocek) and some came from other countries ( Sándor Bauer, a young Hungarian man, and Ilja Rips, a twenty year-old Jewish-Latvian student). On 14 May 1972, a nineteen year-old worker, Romas Kalanta, immolated himself in Kaunas in protest against the occupation of Lithuania, sparking street riots and a whole new wave of similar cases. East-German society vividly responded to the case of an evangelical pastor, Oskar Brüsewitz, who immolated himself on 18 August 1976 to protest against the oppression of Christians in his country and against the church’s collaboration with state authorities. On 23 June 1978, Musa Mamut, a Crimean Tatar farmer, immolated himself in protest against yet another deportation of his fellow people from their homeland. Other Eastern Bloc “living torches” received only limited attention or were overlooked altogether. These people usually acted alone, and the authorities often tried to hush up their actions or depicted them as psychopaths. Some of the cases only came to light after the fall of communism. Today, the individual tragedies are commemorated by monuments and plaques. Some of the protesters have also been honoured with high state awards.