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”.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.