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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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.