In June 1963, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, committed suicide by lighting himself on fire to protest religious discrimination by the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Journalist David Halberstam, who witnessed the act, described his reaction as being “too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.” When President Kennedy heard the news, he was aghast. “How could this happen?” He asked his aide, “Who are these people?” In South Vietnam, Thich Quang Duc’s death reinforced Buddhist opposition to Diem, enflamed the ongoing Buddhist crisis, and set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to Diem’s overthrow. In America, Malcolm Browne’s photograph won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and became one of the most potent symbols of the Vietnam War.
I remember the first time I saw the image of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation. I was 10 or 11, and it was on the cover of my brother’s Rage Against the Machine album. I didn’t know who he was or why he had done it, but I was so taken back by the photo that I remember the feeling of seeing it nearly 20 years later. I suspect that my experience is probably typical. Self-immolations have a uniquely powerful effect on us – probably only rivaled by hunger strikes as a form of political protest. Suicide bombings and Kamikaze attacks are also bewilderingly and ghastly, but because suicide attackers try to kill others alongside themselves, you don’t naturally sympathize with them. By contrast, Costica Bradatan describes the effect of self-immolation:
The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.
The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.
Despite their psychological impact, few self-immolations have the same political effects as Thich Quang Duc’s. At least from an American’s perspective, the two other highly influential cases are: 1) Jan Palach, a Czech student who became a symbol of Czechoslovakian resistance to the Soviet Union following his self-immolation in 1978, and 2) Mohamed Bouazizi, whose 2010 death sparked the Arab Spring.
However, the effects of Palach’s and Bouazizi’s protests are atypical. Self-immolation is not nearly as rare as you would think because the vast majority of cases do not attract much media attention. For instance, Michael Biggs identified 500 cases between 1963-2002 all throughout the world – India, Vietnam, South Korea, Pakistan, the US, the UK, Chile, the Soviet Bloc, China, Malaysia and so forth. These numbers appear to rising in recent years. Since 2009, 95 people have self-immolated in Tibet and at least a dozen in Telangana, India.
I’ve been wondering why some self-immolators attract far more attention than others. Why are some acts remembered while most are tragically forgotten? I’d be curious to hear what other people think, but I’ve come up with three main explanations. (The first two are rather obvious, but I don’t think they explain all the variation.)
First, the ability of the local government to censor news of the event will clearly effect its dissemination. For instance, the lack of international journalists in Tibet helps to explain why the ongoing protests there have received relatively little attention.
Second, when multiple people self-immolate on behalf of the same cause, each subsequent protest will be less shocking than those preceding it. Biggs explained, “A rather different problem is posed by the massive wave of self-immolation in India in 1990 in protest against the plan to reserve more places for students and employees from lower castes. Western news-wires certainly reported this in some detail, but were overwhelmed by its magnitude.” In this regard, I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Stalin: “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
Third, seeing a self-immolation inspires many contradictory emotions – sympathy, awe, disgust, fear, anger, morbid curiosity. However, I think their unique power as a form of political protest comes from their ability to make us feel shame. This is true for both sides of the political conflict. When a person self-immolates in response to policies undertaken by your government, I think the natural reaction is to feel some shame on your country’s behalf. When a person self-immolates on behalf of your cause, you feel shame for not having the will to make the same sacrifice. Thus, depending on the context of the protest, the shame might only be felt by a small audience, while other times it will be felt around the world.