The political psychology of self-immolation

A simple act of protest that can take on mythical proportions.

Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.

At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.

“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. 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.

Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest. Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.

Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact. What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.

Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.

This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009 no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.

The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.

Yet, the explanation has to do more with political, rather than theological, factors. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been unusually oppressive and much of the violent repression has been directed against Buddhist monasteries, seen as the symbol of a “backward,” “feudal” Tibet. Violence only breeds violence. For all its anti-violent stance, when its very existence comes under threat, Buddhism could sometimes find the resources, and even the theoretical justification, for violent resistance; the PLA experienced this first-hand in the Tibet of the 1950s, when monasteries would often fight back. Moreover, most of the recent self-immolations have taken place in what used to be, before the communist take-over, Amdo and Kham, regions populated by fiercely independent people, combination of warriors and monks, that almost no central authority could subdue in the past. The Kampas could be as brutal as the PLA soldiers.

That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair.

In the long-run Tibetans’ despair may be China’s worst nightmare. What a routinisation of self-immolation as political protest can lead to the Chinese authorities may not be even able to comprehend. And, yet, they should not be surprised; maybe it is time they start re-reading the little red book: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” In his grave, Mao Zedong is dreaming in Tibetan.

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2010, holds up his picture. Photograph: Getty Images

Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.