Burning for the Cause

From Tunisia to Tibet, self-immolation is now -- tragically -- back in vogue as a dramatic means of protest. But does it really work?

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.)

None of this is to imply, however, that those monks have obtained religious sanction for their actions. The Buddha, after all, was opposed to any kind of killing at all, suicide included. Earlier this month, the Karampa Lama, the religious successor to the Dalai Lama, called upon Tibetans to forswear suicide in the service of political protest: "I request the people of Tibet to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet."

He was well-advised to do so. 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.

As it happened, his self-sacrifice administered a profound "moral shock" to the nation that haunted it for decades to come, recalls Oldrich Cerny, an ex-activist who now runs a prominent Prague think tank. Palach, he says, "was always with us," right up until the moment in January 1989 when a series of opposition-coordinated events designed to commemorate the student's sacrifice prompted the Communist government to arrest Vaclav Havel, setting in motion a train of events that culminated with the Velvet Revolution later in the year. Yet skeptics point out that a similar act by a Pole named Richard Siwiec, who also tried to protest the Soviet invasion by setting himself on fire just a few months before Palach, went almost entirely forgotten (perhaps because Siwiec survived).

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 last time the Chinese government conducted talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama was in January 2010, two years after a wave of unrest in Tibetan areas throughout southwest China. The absence of dialogue means that people in the region are left with no other channels for expressing their grievances. Several of the monks who have tried to commit suicide come from the monastery of Kirti in northwest Sichuan province, an area that experienced considerable turmoil in 2008 and is now bearing the brunt of an intense security presence. For the moment, self-immolation seems to be one of the only alternatives left to those who would protest.

Needless to say, the challenge that Tibet's suicidal monks pose to their own leadership is mild compared with the one they present to the Chinese Communist Party. Arming the security forces with fire extinguishers appears just as inadequate as Beijing's prior efforts to tamp down discontent among Tibetans by enticing them with the carrot of economic development and brandishing the stick of force. The CCP might do well to consider the sad case of President Diem, who tried to counter the protests from his own monks by ordering a series of retaliatory raids on Buddhist temples. Police even seized Quang Duc's heart, said by pious Buddhists to have survived the flames intact.

None of this, of course, helped to shore up Diem's corruption-ridden regime, and his administration succumbed to a military coup, quietly encouraged by the Americans, a few months after Quang Duc's dramatic demise. To be sure, no one can predict quite the same fate for the Chinese government in Tibet. One thing is for sure, though: When people begin to set themselves on fire for the sake of a cause, all bets are off.

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10 Reasons Why Obama Will Win in 2012

From the GOP foreign-policy debate to Europe's financial crisis, here's why Obama will declare victory next year.

Watching this weekend's Republican presidential debate on U.S. foreign policy, you might be forgiven if you thought it shed absolutely no light on U.S. foreign policy. After all, by definition ... and by God's good graces ... the views expressed represented those of people who will have precious little influence over America's international course. Only one of these people can be the Republican nominee. And, in part thanks to performances like what we saw on Saturday, even that individual is very likely not going to ever be president of the United States.

As a consequence the vapidity of Herman Cain is irrelevant. The pro-torture stance of the wing-nuts in the group is irrelevant. The ridiculous zero-based foreign aid formula suggested by Rick Perry is irrelevant. Even the pontificating of Republican non-Romney of the Month, Newt Gingrich is irrelevant. Because these weren't foreign policy ideas or positions. They were desperate cries for attention.

Sadly, also irrelevant will be thoughtful views offered by Jon Huntsman, who clearly distinguished himself as the most capable, thoughtful, experienced, and credible of the crew.

This means that the 30 minutes of the debate that CBS chose not to air will have a virtually identical impact to the 60 minutes of Obama-bashing, fear-mongering, and peacocking that actually were broadcast.

It is possible that some of the views that were offered by likely nominee Mitt Romney could be consequential. This would not seem to be good for U.S.-China relations except that there is virtually zero possibility that President Mitt Romney -- who would essentially be the hand-picked candidate of the business community and the major party presidential candidate with the closest ties to America's economic establishment in modern memory -- would actually follow through on his anti-Beijing saber-rattling once in office. Further, some of his statements were essentially meaningless to begin with -- like his assertion that a vote for him was the only way to avert Iran getting the bomb, not being backed by facts or even being remotely credible given how key what happens between now and when the next president takes office will be.

But more important still is that Romney isn't going to be the next President either. In all likelihood that will be Barack Obama. Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Obama is the incumbent. That matters. And he has become increasingly confident in using the bully pulpit to his advantage, at appearing presidential. The crucial issue is going to be economics.

2. Despite Europe's economic mess, a number of other factors suggest that the U.S. economy may begin to tick upward more during the next year. Other parts of the world are likely to be growing from the emerging markets to, in a modest way, Japan. More importantly, the likelihood that the U.S. unemployment rate declines the better part of a point to something closer to 8 percent is pretty good. That ought to be enough to make the case he avoided the abyss and turned things around in much the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1984.

3. Like Reagan, Obama is liked and seen as trying hard to do the right thing. That, plus some signs of progress goes a long way with the American people.

4. Furthermore, none of these candidates are a Ronald Reagan. Moreover, none of them are even a George W. Bush, which is saying something. Mitt Romney is the whitest white man in America. He will look more like the establishment than Obama in an anti-establishment year. He will not get any journalistic good bounces because frankly it is hard to spin a narrative about the guy that will grab anyone's heartstrings. Want evidence, look at how desperately half the Republican party is at looking for alternatives.

5. That search for alternatives could lead to a third party candidate. If it's Ron Paul it will eat into Romney's base. It is highly unlikely the left will pose a similar challenge to Obama. As for the possibility of a centrist third party candidate, appealing as it may be, it will be less so to many if it appears that candidate can't win and will only increase the likelihood that Mitt Romney will be elected on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ticket.

6. While external events in the world -- like the Iranian detonation of a nuclear device or a terror attack -- could hurt Obama, in all likelihood, given his growing comfort with foreign-policy and the tendency of the American people to rally around the president in times of crisis, it would be a mistake to count on such a development being more likely to help the Republican candidate.

7. The reality is that while foreign policy won't be central to the election, Obama has already succeeded in doing something remarkable: Taking it off the table. He is hard to criticize given his record with bin Laden, Al Awlaki, Qaddafi, meeting his promise in Iraq, starting to get out of Afghanistan, and restoring America's international reputation.

8. We haven't gotten to the one-on-one segment of the campaign yet. Whoever is the Republican candidate has to run against the very disciplined, intelligent, well-prepared, charismatic president. Which of those folks you saw Saturday night can hold their own versus Obama?

9. The Republican Party on the Hill, via the Tea Party and via its more extreme elements has adopted a bunch of policies that are astonishingly out of touch with the moment. They should be doing great given the economic problems. But they are not only seen as obstructionist on the Hill but they are seen as advocates of millionaires they don't want taxed and opposed to fairness in sharing the burden for the sacrifices fixing the economy will require.

10. By extension the leading voices for the Republican Party are folks like those on the stage ... and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. Really? That's going to grab America in the current environment?

The electoral map says it will be close. But already Republican overreaching has pushed Ohio back toward Obama. The Republican hope re: Florida, Marco Rubio has suffered some self-inflicted wounds. Virginia gets bluer by the day. It's close ... but it's trending toward the President.

And so, while making predictions a year out is a sucker's game, for those of you who watched the Saturday debate and were disheartened there is at least all the above to suggest that none of it mattered that much anyway. As of right now the favorite to be the next president of the U.S. has to be the current president of the U.S.

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