While suicide protest has spread widely, it is more common in countries shaped by Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. Buddhism does not promise posthumous rewards for martyrdom; suicide protest cannot accelerate one's journey toward enlightenment or elevate the next incarnation. But stories of the Buddha's past lives include instances of self-sacrifice. The Lotus Sutra, or scripture, in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism describes the spiritual leader killing himself to feed a famished tiger who is on the verge of eating her cubs. Mahayana Buddhism, originating in China, predominates in Tibet and Vietnam. Lama Sobha cited this Lotus Sutra in his final message.
The Mahayana tradition also has many accounts of monks who killed themselves publicly -- often but not always by fire -- to manifest their transcendence of physical existence, exemplify the power of Buddhist practice, or elicit benefits for their monastic community. But almost all these acts lacked any element of protest, insofar as accounts of the deaths can be interpreted in a modern framework. To put it crudely, they were done for religious rather than political reasons. Such deaths continued into the early 20th century in China and Vietnam. Quang Duc certainly knew of this monastic tradition, and translated it to the domain of politics.
While religion can provide exemplars to inspire sacrifice, suicide protesters rarely view their death as having supernatural efficacy. Even religiously devout individuals, in explaining their action, refer primarily to its communicative efficacy in this world. As always, there are exceptions. Lama Sobha's testimony, for example, does hint at supernatural efficacy. "I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them ... to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light," he declared. "My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment."
Whether aimed at this world or the next, acts of suicide protest can inspire emulation by others. As a result, suicide protest often comes in waves. Suicide attacks, too, usually cluster together, but this can be partly explained by the deliberate nature of campaigns by terrorist or insurgent groups. When an act of suicide protest attracts positive attention, others can envisage the possibility of their own success. Viewed instrumentally, however, this form of communication should be subject to diminishing marginal returns. The first immolation for a particular cause sends a powerful signal about the intensity of conviction. A second or third confirms that the first was not the idiosyncratic action of a peculiar or unbalanced individual. But the thirteenth or fourteenth action surely makes a lesser contribution. Conversely, though, previous sacrifices make the cause more precious. Thus, Lama Sobha expressed gratitude to "other Tibetan heroes, who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet" and explained that he was sacrificing his body, in part, "to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood." The obligation to the dead increases with their number.
So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.
What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack's sanguinary logic -- and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today's world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China's inability to prevent us from reading about -- and in some cases even watching -- the immolations in Tibet.