Dozens of Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past year to protest Chinese rule, sometimes drinking kerosene to make the flames explode from within, in one of the biggest waves of political self-immolations in recent history, but the stunning protests are going largely unnoticed in the wider world — due in part to a smothering Chinese security crackdown in the region that prevents journalists from covering them.
While a single fruitseller in Tunisia who set himself on fire in December 2010 is credited with igniting the Arab Spring democracy movement, the Tibetan self-immolations have so far failed to prompt the changes the protesters demand — an end to government interference in their religion and a return of the exiled Dalai Lama.
Still, experts describe self-immolations as, historically, a powerful form of protest and the ones in Tibet might yet lead to some broader uprising or stir greater international pressure on Beijing.
The Tibetan protesters have burned themselves in market places, main streets, military camps and other symbols of government authority in western China, mostly in a single remote county. Most of the protesters have been members of the Buddhist clergy. The latest were two monks, aged 21 and 22, on Friday last week.
“In scale, this is one of the biggest waves of self-immolation in the last six decades,” said Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs, who studies politically driven suicides. “Particularly, that it’s in one small area of China and in one small ethnic group, definitely, in terms of the intensity compared to the population, it seems to be much greater.”
The pace of 32 self-immolations in little more than a year is more rapid than the suicide-by-fire protests that punctuated the Vietnam War and the pro-democracy movement in South Korea, experts say. It is surpassed only by the more than 100 students in India who burned themselves to protest a caste-based affirmative action proposal in 1990, Biggs said.
Shocking to most people’s sensibilities, self-immolation is calculated, desperate and powerful, Biggs and other experts say. Its effects can be far-reaching, evoking sympathy in people unrelated to the cause and calling the like-minded to action.
For Buddhists, as most Tibetans are, burning the body is seen as a selfless act of sacrifice, especially in defense of religion, and it carries a resonant history.
In the sixth century, the Chinese monk Dazhi used a red-hot iron and a knife to burn and then peel the flesh from an arm, then removed the bones and set them on fire to protest limits on the Buddhist community ordered by a Sui Dynasty emperor, said James Benn, author of Burning for the Buddha, a book about Buddhist self-immolation.
Sometimes the distinction is blurry between political protest and suicide.
In Afghanistan, for example, self-immolation is a common way for women to commit suicide. Many self-immolations have been reported in Tunisia since fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi’s act, but experts say most of them were likely suicides for personal reasons, not protests.
As a modern protest tactic, fiery suicide was effectively invented by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who sat in a lotus position on a busy Saigon street in 1963, had other monks pour gasoline on him, then struck a match. Reporters had been called beforehand.