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The ultimate sacrifice

A string of self-immolations in China has alarmed the authorities. Chris Wilkins looks at the motivations and effects of this extreme form of protest.

Chris Wilkins
2 November 2011

The act of self-immolation often elicits extreme reactions. Many are shocked by the apparent waste of life and selfishness of leaving loved ones behind, while others are moved by the profoundly powerful statement such an act conveys. Combining the dramatics of a fiery spectacle with the ultimate sacrifice of suicide, it would seem trite to call it merely a protest tactic; rather, the act takes the form of an ultimatum, motivated either by determination or desperation, on an issue whose importance – in the eyes of the activist – far outweighs that of their own life.

On the 7th of October, two teenage monks set themselves on fire in the middle of a street in Aba, a Tibetan-majority region of Sichuan Province, China, leaving one dead and the other disfigured. According to the activist group Free Tibet, the protest was in opposition to Chinese rule, but more specifically, should be seen in light of a build-up of tension between Chinese authorities and the local Kirti Monastery. This was the scene of another immolation incident in May, where a 16-year-old monk set himself alight, apparently also in protest against government controls. This earlier incident sparked a crackdown by the local authorities and the arrest of hundreds of monks, many of whom were reportedly sent to ‘patriotic reeducation’ by worried officials, attempting to stamp out such bold and powerful statements of opposition to China’s cultural policies. Ordinary people, highly reverent towards Buddhist monks, reportedly tried their utmost to prevent the monks from being dragged away in the aftermath of the incidents. Additional instances of self-immolation could further galvanise the local population against the authorities, sparking just the type of social unrest the Chinese government fears above all else.

These incidents are reminiscent of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon in 1963, immortalised by journalist Malcolm Browne, whose award-winning image famously showed the monk cross-legged and bolt upright as he slowly burned to death. Thich’s shocking statement was directed towards the US-backed South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, which was guilty of severe persecution against Buddhists, and has been identified by many historians as a critical factor leading to the regime’s collapse. The incident also went a long way towards convincing the US that ‘our son-of-a-bitch’ – as Diem was not-so-affectionately known among the American community in Saigon – was more a liability than an asset.

Despite its contradiction with a key Buddhist tenet – the injunction against killing – the eerie ritualistic calm with which monks go about self-immolation seems to deliver a sense of righteousness and legitimacy. From this perspective, rightly or wrongly, incidents involving ordinary citizens can be more jarring. In November 2009, Tang Fuzhen, a Sichuan woman protesting the proposed demolition of her husband’s garment processing factory, took her own life by setting herself alight. Many Chinese, shocked and outraged by the incident, laid the blame squarely on the government’s land policies, thereby forcing the authorities into a tricky position. Recognising the threat to social harmony – in other words, the potential of such incidents to stoke broader social unrest – the Chinese government had little choice but to respond in January 2010 with a series of proposals for how it would soften the procedures for land seizures and increase compensation to evictees.

Tragically, full implementation did not come soon enough for Tao Huixu, a pig farmer from Jiangsu Province. Faced with eviction in March 2010 by local authorities determined to build an expressway across his land, he stood his ground and refused to accept compensation he deemed unfair. When bulldozers arrived at his doorstep, rather than yield to the authorities, he instead resorted to setting his house on fire – with himself inside. Development remains so crucial to China’s domestic policy that it is hard to foresee any radical change in the government’s approach. Yet the high profile of such incidents should surely cause local authorities throughout China to think twice, in future, about evicting people without adequate compensation – at least to save themselves the embarrassment of recrimination from a shocked public when the next desperate farmer sets himself alight.

Perhaps the best-known instance of self-immolation in recent times was that of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself alight in a busy Tunis street in January 2010. Attesting to the sheer power of Bouazizi’s statement, the incident is often viewed as the trigger behind a movement for change throughout North Africa and the Middle East, which has so far seen the demise of three dictators and continues to unfold across the region. Bouazizi could never have anticipated the eventual outcome of his simple, solitary act. Yet his desperation, stoked by years of hardship and unheard grievances, inspired him to send a message to his oppressors that they would ignore at their peril. Throughout history, many petitions and protests have gone unheard, but rarely does self-immolation fail to trigger some kind of response – occasionally by pressuring nervous authorities to act, but more often through inspiring shocked sympathisers to ramp up the pressure on errant rulers.

This is not to say that other less extreme forms of protest are incapable of securing lasting change. The tactics of non-violence and civil disobedience promoted by Mahatma Gandhi, in particular, have had an immeasurable impact on protest movements around the world, inspiring millions to follow the same course. Neither should it be assumed that self-immolations always achieve beneficial outcomes. In 2001, members of the Falun Gong religious sect, protesting against government repression, set themselves alight in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Seizing the opportunity to justify a crackdown, the state-run media successfully portrayed the perpetrators – who included a 12-year-old girl – as vicious and cultish. Rather than galvanise support for the group, the effect of the incident was to turn the public mood from general indifference to outright support for official policy.

As the sociologist Michael Biggs points out, however, most self-immolations convey huge emotional power through simultaneously inspiring sacrifice and provoking outrage – projecting the image of an ‘innocent victim’ and a ‘brave hero’ rolled into one. When Thich Quang Duc set himself alight in the middle of Saigon, none could have doubted the suffering inflicted upon him by his oppressors, nor doubted his commitment to his cause. Self-immolators are uninterested in reveling in their own sense of righteousness, nor are they concerned with displaying their anger through smashing shop fronts or throwing projectiles at police. That they are willing, even, to forego the opportunity to ever see their goals realised, smacks of a level of desperation and commitment to change that most of us would neither be willing, nor able, to emulate, no matter how strong our convictions. Shocked as we are by such acts, the outcomes – whether intended or unintended – are often staggering.

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