In June 1963, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon and assumed the lotus position. Several other monks poured gasoline over him and retreated to a safe distance. Then he set himself on fire. As recounted by Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs, one of Quang Duc's students later described him as "sitting bravely and peacefully, enveloped in flames."
The monk's friends had taken care to ensure that foreign reporters were on the scene, and the photos and TV footage of his blazing body quickly spread around the world. Quang Duc staged his act to protest the presumed anti-Buddhist policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem (a Catholic), but images of this blood-curdling act of self-sacrifice soon became emblems of a broader campaign of resistance against the Vietnam War. Not only did other Vietnamese Buddhist monks follow Quang Duc's example, but at least three Americans did as well.
Thich Quang Duc's body may have been consumed by the flames, but nearly half a century later his spirit seems to be more alive than ever. The revolutions that have been coursing around the Middle East started in January 2011, when a Tunisian produce seller set himself ablaze to protest the abuses of local authorities. Mohamed Bouazizi's death inspired a series of less-noted but equally horrific acts of public suicide in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and even Mauritania. Since February 2009, meanwhile, at least a dozen Tibetan monks have set themselves on fire to protest a continuing political crackdown by authorities in Beijing. Most have died. The last incident occurred in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu on Nov. 10, when bystanders thwarted an exiled Tibetan's attempt at self-immolation.
On Wednesday came a report from the Daily Telegraph, which revealed that a Chinese man -- in what may have been the first such protest in the heart of Beijing for more than a decade -- had failed in an attempt to commit suicide by fire in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 21. The Chinese authorities, who initially passed over the incident in silence, have now admitted that a man identified only as Mr. Wang "took the extreme action because of discontent over the outcome of a civil litigation in a local court." This unusual degree of detail in the government's statement suggests an eagerness to dispel any connection between Wang's attempted self-destruction and the recent events in Tibet
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.)