AP Photo/Hassene Dridi
People in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid walk past a statue depicting the produce cart of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who set himself alight on Dec. 17, 2010, after a police officer confiscated the fruit and vegetables he sold to support his family. His action helped ignite the Arab Spring.

Self-immolation as protest tactic rises in Tibet, Middle East

Political suicides by fire rise among many Tibetans and Arabs as their situations grow desperate. But such a tactic often fails to ignite protest, and itself raises questions.

In the past two years, a tragic type of protest has become popular in two different parts of the world. Dozens of Arabs and Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in public.

Such grisly displays of martyrdom are usually designed to show a person’s depth of conviction for a cause and to shock others into action. Yet only one recent self-immolation has clearly brought a result.

On Dec. 17, 2009, the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself in the middle of a street out of economic frustration and after being humiliated by police. His mix of bravery and desperation found a moral resonance among other frustrated Tunisians. They rose up to topple a dictator in short order. The Arab Spring was sprung.

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Tunisians achieved their freedom, but they have yet to find economic security. Jobs are still scarce in the new democracy. As a result, dozens of others have lit themselves on fire in protest. And in many other Arab countries such as Bahrain and Morocco, which have yet to be liberated, a political standoff or the use of violence against protesters has pushed a dozen or more people to try the fiery tactic (although not all die).

After a while, however, a copycat phenomenon runs the risk of dulling the effects on public thinking. News reports of such events become shorter. The very act itself raises troubling questions about the political use of suicide as a unique form of protest. The families of those who kill themselves, for example, are often emotional victims who may also lose a breadwinner.

Unlike a suicide bomber who kills others, self-immolators seem to hold a special standing. Their act shows more desperation than hope. And in Tibet, desperation has clearly been the case, motiving a string of self-immolations despite a Buddhist reverence for life.

Since riots against Chinese rule four years ago, Tibetans have suffered even harsher conditions. Beijing is targeting Buddhist monks and nuns, forcing many to renounce their spiritual leaders and teachings as a way to end Tibet’s cultural and religious identity. Many of the recent self-immolators were associated with the Kirti Monastery in a Tibetan part of China’s Sichuan Province.

The Dalai Lama was at first silent about the horrifying actions of these protesters, and then discouraged them. They have evoked a strong condemnation by Beijing, in part because the suicides show just how much Tibetans might be able to endure the sufferings imposed on them. The regime may also fear the effect on the conscience of ordinary Chinese who could be challenged in their support of a government that causes Tibetans to sacrifice themselves.

A similar but more common protest tactic is the hunger strike. It was made famous in the 1930s by Mohandas Gandhi in protesting British rule of India and again in 1981 by IRA prisoners who starved to death over conditions in a British prison.

That tactic was used again last year by an Indian activist, Anna Hazare. His hunger strikes in Delhi against corruption spurred thousands of people to join his cause and the government to begin debate on new antigraft laws.

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The moral question over the use of suicide – either by fire or hunger – being employed for a moral cause remains difficult to answer. The easiest response is simply to say such tactics generally don’t work – until one case does.

The ultimate lesson is that no people should be forced to live in such desperate circumstances that they feel they must resort to desperate means like suicide. The current wave of self-immolations shows the need to prevent extreme repression in the first place.

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