By Michael Biggs
Since March 2011, over thirty Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest against repression in China. This is the latest manifestation of a resurgence in suicide protest — where someone kills him or herself for a political cause, without harming anyone else. The most famous recent case is Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia, whose self-immolation sparked the Arab spring in 2011 and whose example was followed by many others in North Africa. Less familiar in the West, the campaign for a separate state of Telangana within India (to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh) was accompanied by a wave of self-immolation in 2010-2011.
The Tibetan wave of self-immolation is already one of the largest in the last half century. There is only a single episode on a much greater scale: in India in 1990, when over a hundred students killed themselves or attempted suicide to protest against affirmative action for lower castes.
For the Tibetan cause, self-immolation is not new. A former monk set himself on fire in India in 1998, after a group of hunger strikers from the Tibetan Youth Congress was attacked by police. The origins of the recent wave can be traced to 2009, when a monk in China’s Sichuan province set himself on fire while raising a Tibetan flag. He came from Kirti monastery, which has become the scene of many recent immolations.
What could explain the adoption of such a terrible tactic? The long-running campaign for Tibetan autonomy has garnered public support in the West, but has not improved conditions in China. While the world’s attention was on Beijing’s Olympic Games in 2008, Tibetans — including monks in Kirti monastery — did protest, but this led only to severe repression. The prospects for conventional forms of non-violent protest surely appeared bleak. Yet recourse to violence — the kind of insurgency fought by separatist movements all over the world — was incompatible with Buddhist values championed by the Dalai Lama. Self-immolation was a last resort.
This terrible action has a long history in Mahayana Buddhism, the predominant Buddhist tradition in Tibet, China, and Vietnam. Texts from the fourth century onwards describe monks choosing death, usually by fire. The practice continued into the early twentieth century. We could categorize these deaths as ‘religious’ rather than ‘political’; they were intended to achieve a more exalted existence after death or to influence the cosmic order.
Self-immolation as a form of political protest was invented by a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam. Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963: an action staged for the Western media. Altogether about seventy Buddhists sacrificed themselves in the country in the years down to 1975: protesting against the government’s political and religious repression and its prosecution of the war against North Vietnam. Most of the immolators were monks or nuns, but some were laypeople, often students — just like the Tibetans today.
While self-immolation might recapitulate ancient tradition, it can also exploit modern technology. Quang Duc’s action became known all over the world because it was captured by a press photographer. China exercises tight control over media, but censorship can be circumvented by technology. There is an image of the Tibetan monk who set himself on fire in 2009, obviously captured by a mobile phone. New technology means that information cannot be confined by state boundaries, and so one act of unimaginable courage can find a global audience.
Can these immolations have a real political influence? They have certainly galvanized a wave of protest by Tibetans in China, and of course have attracted public attention in the West (which is why I am writing this and you are reading it). The problem for the Tibetan cause, however, is that the West has minimal leverage over China. Contrast South Vietnam in 1963: it was a client of the US, and the self-immolations alienated the American government, leading quickly to a coup. Conceivably, the Tibetan immolations could alter public opinion in China, among the majority Han Chinese. However, there is no sign of this happening.
The Chinese government has previously turned self-immolation to its own advantage. Following a campaign of repression against Falun Gong, five followers set themselves alight in Tiananmen Square (and two more were thwarted) on the eve of Chinese New Year in 2001. The government initially tried to censor news of this incident, confiscating film taken by CNN. Then an official realized that the action could be turned against the movement, as one of the immolators was a 12-year-old girl (accompanied by her mother). State television broadcast gruesome film showing the girl writhing in agony. This enabled the government to portray Falun Gong as a dangerous cult, justifying its repression. Survivors from the Tiananman Square incident were later paraded in front of television to denounce the movement. In echoes of this media strategy, the first Tibetan to set himself on fire in China in 2009 has since been interviewed on local television, saying that he regretted his action.
Whatever the larger political consequences, self-immolation by Tibetans seems destined to continue in the weeks to come: each sacrifice inspires others to emulate it.
Michael Biggs is a sociologist at Oxford University, who studies social movements and political protest. He contributed a chapter on self-immolation to Making Sense of Suicide Missions, edited by Diego Gambetta, which was awarded an honourable mention by American Society of Criminology/Division of International Criminology Distinguished Book Award 2006. His latest article “Explaining Membership in the British National Party: A Multilevel Analysis of Contact and Threat” is forthcoming in European Sociological Review.