The Centuries-Old History of Setting Yourself on Fire As Protest


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Over the weekend, a climate activist from Colorado died after setting himself on fire in front of the United States Supreme Court. Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation coincided with Earth Day, and his friends have told news outlets that he was deeply passionate about climate change. Bruce was far from the first person to make a statement this way, though. In fact, the history of self-immolation is quite long, and it’s been done in protest of all manner of things.

How long has self-immolation protest been going on?

The earliest recorded protest of this manner took place in 396 when an individual named Fayu lit themselves on fire in what would later become China.

After two asylum seekers on an island off the coast of Australia set themselves on fire in 2016, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that while suicide protest is “very uncommon,” it has increased globally in the past 50 years or so.

What is the the purpose of this type of suicide protest?

Bombings and airflights are among the methods that spring to mind when discussing violent and symbolic suicides, and those are largely done to make a point or cause further damage. Self-immolation is less considered—until it happens. There is a reason for that: It is graphic and attention-grabbing.

In 2013, Oxford University sociology lecturer Michael Biggs told NPR that there are two different motivations for this act: One is to show a distant audience how bad a situation is for an impacted group. The second is to strengthen the resolve of those who stay behind.

When reviewing the history of political self-immolations, one thing becomes clear: Those who choose to die by fire are often part of maligned or mistreated groups. They aim to make a statement about their group’s treatment—and draw attention to the issues that will continue to plague those who live on.

What are some well-known examples of self-immolation?

Bruce’s death made headlines this week and will continue to be discussed for a long time, like the self-immolations that came before his. One of the most famous examples of this form of protest was carried out by an elderly Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc. In 1963, the Vietnamese man burned himself alive in the streets of Saigon to protest the corrupt government. The photo of the so-called “Burning Monk” made international headlines, and former President John F. Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Indeed, the act of protest is considered one of the things that pushed America into the Vietnam War.

Monks make up a significant number of those who choose this form of protest, in fact, though nuns have done it, too. Others who’ve gone this route include peace activists, farmers, and students. Two years after Thich Quang Duc protested and died in Saigon, a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated, inspiring the protests that became the Arab Spring.

In more recent years, over 100 people in Tibet set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. From women’s rights in Iran to unemployment in Turkey, the reasons for these protest suicides vary, but almost all of them are undertaken to raise awareness of what the person sees as an injustice affecting members of their community. Earlier this year, a man in Australia set himself on fire to protest COVID-19 vaccination mandates, though paramedics and police intervened and he did not die.

Why is this important?

Self-immolation protests are often a final and gruesome act. As noted above, they are frequently done to raise awareness of causes and injustices. Those who do this hope that, like the “Burning Monk” of the 1960s, their final act can capture the necessary attention to right a perceived wrong. While their causes are clearly important to them, it is equally important never to glorify violence or suicide. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Over the weekend, there was significant outcry among news consumers that many initial reports from major outlets failed to mention Bruce’s position as a climate activist. Friends and acquaintances of Bruce’s spoke out online, demanding that journalists highlight what was important to him. Dr. K. Kritee, a climate scientist and Zen Buddhist priest in Colorado, tweeted that she knew Bruce and added, “This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis.”

Understanding the motivation behind such protests is vital, even when not glorifying or condoning the act. History has shown that ignoring these motivations will not stop injustice.


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