12.12.12

Tibet, Persecution, and Marital Shame: Why People Burn Themselves to Death

A teenage girl set herself on fire last weekend to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet. Kent Sepkowitz looks at the centuries-long practice of self-immolation—and why it persists from India to Vietnam to Iran.

This weekend yet another young person, a 17-year-old girl named Wangchen Kyi, set herself on fire to protest the Chinese presence in Tibet. She joined almost 100 others who have self-immolated in the past few years over the same issue. The last two months have seen an unusually high number, including 28 in November alone, thought to be related to the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, held the same month, or else to demonstrate support of the Dalai Lama, who is accused by China of encouraging the deaths in hopes of drawing international attention to the complex relationship between China and Tibet.

Attempting to quiet things down, China’s highest court recently issued a statement, “Opinion on Handling Self-Immolation Cases in Tibetan Areas in Accordance With the Law.” The court declared that inciting self-immolation was a form of murder and referred to “significant evil ...  from collusion between hostile forces” to explain the phenomenon.

Self-immolation has been around for centuries, having been intermittently practiced by protesting monks in the East. The medical literature only recently has begun to examine the medical and psychiatric underpinnings of the practice. In a review of self-immolation written by psychiatrists in Seattle, the world’s experience was considered; the authors found that two very different groups gravitated toward the action. In higher-income countries, self-immolation was rare and most often carried out by males, many of whom had a psychiatric history. In contrast, in low-income areas, especially in Asia, the action is more common and more often carried out by women either in political protest or to escape marital strife.

A review of one aspect (PDF) of the problem—copy-cat self-immolation—provides additional detail. According to these authors, self-immolation is a rare form of suicide in developed countries, accounting for less than 1 percent, but in some countries, particularly Iran, the act accounts for as many as 40 percent of all suicides. India currently has the highest number of persons who die this way. In 2000 and again in 2001, the country saw about 1,500 self-immolations.

Over the past 50 years, two self-immolations have had a significant political impact.

In 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burned himself to death in broad daylight on a crowded street in Saigon to protest the Roman Catholic government’s persecution of Buddhists. His act was witnessed by the journalist David Halberstam and immortalized by photographer Malcolm Browne. Halberstam wrote: “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound”—a calm that Browne’s iconic image captured and perhaps even made heroic. 

Thousands of self-immolations occurred in the next decades, some with a strong political effect, many with very little impact. Then, in December, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor set himself aflame and catalyzed a wave of intense national unrest (and copy-cat self-immolations) that led to the overthrow of the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the first step in what is now referred to as the Arab Spring.

For most authors, the chronically suicidal seldom are those who burn themselves to death. As Michael Biggs, a sociologist in England who studies this issue has written in Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations From 1963 to 2002 (PDF), “suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation.” His work, though, did not consider a different, large, and troubling group that has been described in the last decade: housewives in rural Iran who burn themselves alive because of marital shame.

By counting up their number, and photographing and eulogizing them, we threaten to deprive the victims of the attention to their cause that they sought.

Other researchers from Iran have described a survival rate of about 20 percent for those who attempt suicide this way. Those who live typically are saved by a crowd who can’t bear to watch another death and put out the fire with whatever’s handy. With adequate treatment of the burns—which if deep enough ironically become painless because of destruction of local nerve endings—the patients have a shot at survival similar to that of a person rescued from a burning apartment.

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An early self-immolation protest in Vietnam, 1963. (Michael Browne/AP)

The exact cause of death from self-immolation was studied in Berlin, where investigators reported a decade of cases (46 total) and found several different causes. Most had doused themselves with gasoline before igniting the fire. The average victim had significant burns (covering 78 percent of the body). A third of them died from the acute physical shock of the burn, whereas others died of inhalation of smoke and/or burn trauma to the airway. In a French study of 29 self-immolations, a comparable proportion of the body was burned as described in Germany, though the soles of the feet consistently were spared. The authors measured the amount of carbon monoxide, a gas loosed by flames that causes fatal suffocation, and found it dangerously and probably fatally elevated in more than half the victims.

As complex as a person’s motivation may be to burn himself alive, equally complex is to ponder our own fascination with this particular form of suicide. Writing earlier this year in the New Statesman, Costica Bradatan notes that self-immolation provides to “even the most secularized of us … a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred” that mixes irresistible terror and fascination. Perhaps. Yet by counting up their number, and photographing and eulogizing them, we threaten to deprive the victims from the East of the attention to their cause that they sought. In its place, we may only bring our most predictable commodity: the insatiable gaze of the West’s powerfully curious but forever weak-kneed.