Self-immolation is an unthinkably costly and tragic method of last resort sometimes used by those striving for justice and freedom in asymmetric conflicts. The first person to perform this fiery protest as a modern political tactic is Thich Quang Duc, who sat in the lotus position at a busy intersection in Saigon in 1963 and set himself on fire to decry Buddhist suffering under a pro-Catholic regime. A few years later, in January 1969, Jan Palach set himself alight in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion and occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia. In recent decades, the most famous case is that of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution that toppled the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali and brought democratic change to the country.
Since the birth of the tactic in 1963, the world has witnessed some 3,000 incidents of self-immolation, according to sociologist Michael Biggs. About 160 of these occurred in Tibet between 2011 and 2018, marking one of the greatest waves of suicide protests in history. Considering the extent of the practice, we, scholars and practitioners of nonviolent resistance, must ask ourselves: Why do some people prefer to die in the truth, rather than to live in a lie? And does the involvement of death, in and of itself, automatically place any tactic in the camp of violence?
Before we proceed further, we want to state clearly that this article does not advocate the use of self-immolation. The goal of this article is to explore the complicated political and ethical dimensions of the tactic by taking a closer look at its use in the Tibetan freedom struggle. We address three aspects of the phenomenon, which we believe are important for challenging oppressive regimes’ smear campaigns that aim to undermine immolators’ claims and motives. The first dynamic we examine is context of the self-immolations; the second is intentions (in the name of what?); and the third is impacts (expected and actual).
A broader goal of this article is to illuminate and add nuance to our modern understanding of political violence. No matter how thorny questions are about what constitutes a violent vs. a nonviolent tactic, we must resist our adversaries’ ongoing attempts to sow confusion in our camp. As Hegel observed, there is no universal way of marking the precise point that separates day from night, but that doesn’t negate the fact that a real distinction exists between the two. Similarly, we believe there is no universally accepted boundary separating violent from nonviolent action, but there is no denying that a real distinction exists between the two categories of means. The consequences of this distinction matter greatly in our struggles for rights, justice and freedom today. They do, however, vary based on context.
Historically, Tibet has never had a cultural affinity for either ordinary suicide or martyrdom. Overwhelmingly Buddhist in identity as well as ideology, Tibetans traditionally regard human life as a gift, made especially priceless by the doctrinal belief that the human body is the only vehicle by which one can reach enlightenment. No other animal or life form is intellectually capable of realizing the wisdom of emptiness, which is a necessary condition for liberating oneself from samsara (འཁོར་བ་)—the cycle of birth and death. Not surprisingly, then, suicide has long been considered culturally unacceptable and morally a sin (སྡིག་པ་ digpa).
The only exception is when one gives up one’s own life to save another life (or lives), exemplifying the virtue of compassionate self-sacrifice. The latter constitutes a key teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, the reformist school of Buddhism that predominates in Tibet. Thus, among Mahayana Buddhists, the instrumental act of giving up one’s own life to serve the interest and welfare of others is technically not considered suicide but instead, an incomparable act of charity. For Thich Naht Hanh, this altruistic motivation is what transforms self-immolation from an “act of destruction”—which is what a typical suicide would constitute—into an “act of construction.”
In the Tibetan political context, self-immolation is mostly seen as an act of unwavering commitment to the cause of national liberation. At the personal level, it represents a stubborn refusal to live under the repressive rule of the Chinese government, and a final rejection of the lies that form the very structure of survival in a totalitarian regime.
In a sense, the self-immolators embody Havel’s ideal of “living in the truth” even as one exists in a system of lies, fear, and hypocrisy. But this ideal comes at a price: in a ruthless and unforgiving totalitarian state, living in the truth guarantees one’s death. The self-immolator, then, expedites the inevitable and preempts the state, thereby denying the vengeful state the satisfaction of killing him. He chooses to die on his own terms–in the truth–rather than live a life of fear and lies as prescribed by the regime. In other words, he demonstrates that even death itself is not violent compared to the choice of continuing to live.
We do not have data on every Tibetan self-immolator, but in instances where last words were heard and death notes were left behind, immolators describe their intention to sacrifice their own lives to advance the collective freedom of their people.
Throughout the wave of Tibetan self-immolations in the 2010s, the role of altruism as a motive is prominent. Out of the 160 immolators in Tibet, about 49 were able to leave some sort of final words—“written statements, recordings, and comments made to friends and family”—that reached the outside world. Given the low level of literacy among Tibetans, combined with the extremely repressive environment where messengers are severely punished for providing information to foreign media, it is difficult for a would-be self-immolator to pen his or her final statement and have it reach a broader audience.
Among the few who did, one of the most revealing messages came from Lama Sobha, a 42-year-old monk. He recorded an audio testimony saying, “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering”. This metaphor of giving away one's body as an offering invokes a popular Jataka tale about the Buddha in a previous life “who gave his body to feed the (starving) tiger”. The language of this testimony, invoked by many other self-immolators, is clearly rooted in the Mahayana Buddhist principle of altruistic self-sacrifice for a collective cause.
Returning momentarily to the 1963 self-immolation in Saigon: Unlike ordinary protest tactics such as marches and demonstrations, Qiang Duc’s self-immolation dramatized Buddhists' struggle for religious freedom and made it highly visible to the international community, communicating the urgency of the matter at hand. According to Malcolm Browne, Associated Press correspondent in Saigon and photographer of the 1963 self-immolation, a monk had called to inform him of the action and where it was to take place. Upon seeing Browne’s photos of the self-immolation, U.S. President John F. Kennedy called for an immediate reconsideration of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. It was the shocking photographs of a monk, sitting calmly in a lotus position, unflinching as his flesh burned, that left Kennedy with no choice in his own mind but to act—and this was clearly the intent. Simultaneously, in terms of broader political impact, the self-immolation can be seen as a coercive tactic that increased the cost of maintaining the status quo.
While Mohamed Bouazizi’s intentions in Tunisia are not as well documented as those of Vietnamese and Tibetan monks, his self-immolation ended up sparking a national uprising, which ultimately led to the disintegration of the Ben Ali regime. Through its visual and emotive power, Bouazizi’s self-immolation drew global attention and increased domestic mobilization that critically weakened the institutional pillars on which the dictatorial regime depended for its survival. But surely Bouazizi couldn't have anticipated the far-reaching political consequences of his action beforehand. If Quang Duc’s self-immolation was the paradigmatic act of protest self-sacrifice aimed at the political regime, Bouazizi’s suicide was an act of rage against the policewoman who had humiliated him, and was only later consecrated by the media and the movement as protest self-immolation.
It has been said that by refusing to kill, a person runs the risk of being killed. He would prefer to ‘give his life’ rather than have to kill. This statement is contingent on defining nonviolence in the negative—as the refusal to kill.
Yet killing an adversary and refusing to kill an adversary are not the only two possible lines of action in a political conflict. This false dichotomy is disrupted by nonviolent resistance (which we distinguish here from moral or ethical nonviolence, a life philosophy). Nonviolent resistance is both refusal to kill and refusal to stand idly by, and the two negatives produce a positive: action. Participants of nonviolent resistance observe nonviolent discipline in planned actions, but those actions may otherwise raise hell, leverage pressure on adversaries, expose adversaries’ vulnerabilities, and so on.
This is why we must break the silence on self-immolation in the field of nonviolent resistance. Whether one believes self-immolation to be an act of violence or of nonviolent resistance, oppressive regimes are eager to fill the silence and portray self-immolation as an outcome of mental illness or religious extremism. Dictatorships always seek to throw a veil of doubt over acts of resistance that challenge their power.
Without recommending this harrowing tactic to anyone, we can still honor the sacrifice of self-immolators for rights, justice and freedom. For whether it is to die in the truth or to live in the truth, it is still the truth that is always worth pursuing.
By focusing on this political act, the authors do not in any way condone it. Researchers have identified an enormous repertoire including nearly 400 nonviolent tactics that have been used successfully to combat injustice and oppression and which preserve the lives of all parties involved.
Tenzin Dorjee is Senior Researcher and Strategist at Tibet Action Institute and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science at Columbia University. Dorjee’s research examines the influence of religion on political conflict and the efficacy of nonviolent resistance.Read More
Amber French is Senior Editorial Advisor at ICNC, Managing Editor of the Minds of the Movement blog (est. June 2017) and Project Co-Lead of REACT (Research-in-Action) focusing on the power of activist writing. Currently based in Paris, France, she continues to develop thought leadership on civil resistance in French.Read More