SELF-IMMOLATION AS A FORM OF protest first came onto the national scene in 1963, when Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức lit himself on fire at an intersection in Saigon and quietly burned alive. The photo that was taken of the event has seared itself into the memory of virtually everyone who has seen it, and it brought the plight of the Vietnamese people squarely onto the world’s stage.
The history of self-immolation did not stop there, though. The Arab Spring, the effects of which are still being felt across the world, was kicked off by a Tunisian street vendor by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire in protest of unfair treatment by the Tunisian government. The ensuing unrest toppled several governments in the Middle East, and is still playing itself out in the horrifically violent civil war in Syria.
Self-immolation is a shocking enough form of protest that it seems to be particularly effective at setting off serious unrest.
Over the last 18 years in Tibet, 144 people have burned themselves to death.
The most recent was a 16-year old named Dorjee Tsering, who died of his burns three days later. This form of protest has seen a massive spike since 2009 as a part of protests against the Chinese treatment of the Tibetan people and the continued exile of the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. The Chinese drove the Dalai Lama out of Tibet in the late 1950s, and unrest has been a frequent occurrence since then.
What has kicked off the most recent spates of Tibetan unrest has been the fact that the Dalai Lama is getting up there in years, and it appears the Chinese government is going to try and choose themselves who the next Dalai Lama will be, in an attempt to wrest more political control over the region. This, to the Tibetan people, is nonsense, as the Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of past Dalai Lama’s, and thus could not be “chosen” by the Chinese state.
This issue is a symptom of larger unrest around the “cultural genocide” that China has been committing against the Tibetan people, largely in the form of oppressing their religion, taking action against Tibetan Buddhist activists, and by turning Tibet into a place that is more culturally assimilated into China.
In the meantime, as more Tibetans light themselves on fire, China appears to be attempting to repress any news of self-immolations in order to limit international outrage at the scale of the problem in the country.