Evaluating self-immolation as a protest strategy

As the Arab Spring movements of this year began with an act of self-immolation in Tunisia, we might ask this question: is this an effective strategy for protest?

Self-immolation as a form of political protest is far more common than you might think. It’s particularly prevalent in countries that are home to many Buddhists and Hindus, who have long ascetic traditions that sometimes involve radical acts of physical self-abnegation. In 1990, for example, more than 200 upper-caste Indians set themselves on fire to protest government plans to reserve spots at university for people from the lower castes. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, an American sociologist who studies nonviolent resistance movements, says that Mahatma Gandhi based his theory of civil disobedience on the Hindu concept of tapasya, the embrace of suffering in the service of a higher cause. (The word literally means “heat.”) People sometimes forget, Nepstad says, that Gandhi regarded his activist followers as “nonviolent warriors,” ready to die for their cause even as they rejected attacks against others. (Intriguingly, as Nepstad points out, those three Americans who killed themselves to protest the Vietnam War were two Quakers and a left-wing Catholic, all of them members of avowedly pacifist groups.)…

The history of self-immolation as a political tool suggests that it is a highly volatile one. Setting oneself on fire can sometimes ignite a huge political protest, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide resonated precisely because he and his supporters carefully calibrated their efforts to attract as much publicity as possible, even handing out prepared leaflets outlining their demands to bystanders. But they may have been the exception to the rule. Most self-immolators don’t seem to think that far ahead. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide had a far greater political impact than that of any of his Arab Spring emulators, clearly had no inkling of the enormous changes his act would unleash.

Whether a political suicide succeeds in igniting mass activism seems to depend largely on the circumstances of the moment. Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of his homeland the previous year, first came up with a harebrained scheme to occupy a government radio station before deciding at the last minute to burn himself in Wenceslas Square. Had he gone ahead with his initial (even more quixotic) plan, he might be remembered rather differently today…

Self-immolators make a tricky fit with established political organizations: Few leaders are likely to court popularity by inviting their followers to resort to public suicide. The Tibetan monks offer a case in point. Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., says that the suicides pose a “moral dilemma” for the Tibetan opposition in exile, which is doing its best to dissuade would-be self-immolations even as it acknowledges the intense sense of desperation that appears to be driving them.

The answer appears to be not typically but perhaps it is helpful in generating a larger movement under the right conditions. This could be a catalyst for larger action but not necessarily. Is there ever a backlash against such an action?

The article doesn’t say about how often this has been tried in the Western world in order to call attention to a particular issue or in order to galvanize a movement. Is this generally a theologically-motivated act?

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