The Arab Spring did not begin with a tweet or status update. It began with a man burning himself to death.
As gestures of protest, defiance, or martyrdom go, self-immolation is singular: horrifying, searingly painful, outrageous, shocking, gruesome, unfathomable. It signals profound desperation, a complete lack of hope in a system that has failed.
The practice can be traced back into the murky pre-histories offered by faith and legend. One of Hindu god Shiva’s wives burned herself alive; similar acts of self-sacrifice occur in Buddhist texts.
As a modern political act, self-immolation debuted on the global stage in 1963, when Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, responding to religious persecution in Vietnam, set himself alight in a Saigon street.
“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring,” wrote the journalist David Halberstam, who witnessed the grim event. “In the air was the smell of burning flesh.” Four additional monks, and one nun, followed suit.
A photograph of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation became iconic. (Most curiously, a man named Mike Stimpson
, who recreates famous photos as Lego tableaux, made a version.) More than 50 years after his death, his crystallized remains have been publicly displayed as “relics.”
A handful of Americans self-immolated during the Vietnam era, but the most famous instance in the United States likely occurred in 1996, when a 46-year-old artist and activist named Kathy Chang
broke with her habit of public dance performances for peace by burning herself to death in front of a University of Pennsylvania library.
Mohamed Bouazizi, the man who — as it were — ignited the Arab Spring, was a fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. He had been humiliated in a December 2010 confrontation with a (female) municipal inspector who confiscated his wares, and slapped his face. When he tried to protest, he was beaten, and denied an audience with the governor. And so the 26-year-old poured paint thinner over his body and burned himself alive.
Within a month, the resulting unrest drove Tunisia’s president from the country.
Bouazizi’s example evidently inspired more than a dozen
other acts of self-immolation in the weeks after his death.
The subsequent analysis of protest strategies around the Arab Spring focused more on the use of social media than on the more analog gesture of human beings burning themselves alive. Nevertheless, self-immolation as a response to injustice has been practiced with (what ought to be) shocking frequency, around the globe, in the decades since Thich Quang Duc.
In the 21st century, the practice is most closely associated with Tibet. Between 2009 and early 2015, 140 residents and counting of the Tibetan region of China have set themselves on fire in protest of what they consider Chinese occupation of their homeland, according to an advocacy group called International Campaign for Tibet, or ICT.
Not everyone who self-immolates actually dies as a result. ICT alleges that survivors are often taken into custody and subjected to further “extreme physical and psychological suffering,” or they simply disappear.
And not every act of self-immolation resonates widely. In early 2015, Facebook was sharply criticized for deleting material about one monk who burned himself to death in front of a police station in Tibet. Its “graphic content,” the company explained, “didn’t meet Facebook’s community standards.”
Surely violating “community standards” is the entire point of self-immolation. Consider a few of the self-immolation incidents reported in the first half of 2015:
A man set himself alight outside the mayor’s office in Kaliningrad, Russia.
A newly married couple did the same, at home, in Gattahalli, India.
In Vietnam, a woman self-immolated in response to a government decision to demolish a marketplace that included her shop.
A 21-year-old farmer in Chiapas, Mexico, protested his father’s arrest by setting himself on fire.
A war veteran in Azerbaijan reportedly burned himself to death following “bureaucratic indifference” to a physical attack.
An Algerian man self-immolated when he couldn’t get a new French visa.
Many other attempts, with various motives, are foiled by authorities.
As astonishing as these incidents may have been, what’s more remarkable is that you probably never saw or heard anything about any of them. Most such acts are not visually documented, but even when they are, those visual documents do not circulate widely.
Perhaps times have changed since the era of Thich Quang Duc. Perhaps, in the dazzling array of digital distractions (and status updates) that vie for our attention, people burning themselves to death should no longer expect that act to gain much attention.
Self-immolation is a singular gesture that, it turns out, occurs all the time. And for the most part, the global audience ignores it. That sounds unthinkable.
But so does the act itself.