Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Flames Of Protest: The History Of Self-Immolation


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A grim milestone last week in Tibet: Over the past four years, more than 100 people have now set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. According to the campaign, International Campaign for Tibet, at least 85 died following their protest.

The practice of political suicide is not new. During the Vietnam War, a horrified world saw pictures of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting calmly as his body burned in a public square in Saigon. Two years ago, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi inspired protests that developed into the Arab Spring.


Thus far, more than 100 such acts appears to have effected little change in China. Later in the program, we'll talk about the anatomy of a successful movie trailer, but first self-immolation and politics. We begin with Michael Biggs, a sociologist at the University of Oxford. He joins us from BBC Studios there. Welcome to the program.


CONAN: And I have to ask you, I know you've looked into it - why - and it's hard to answer this question - why does someone set themselves afire, kill themselves, to effect change and harming only themselves?

BIGGS: Well, I think we can distinguish two different motivations, although they're often combined in a single action. So one motivation is to show a distant audience, an audience far away that doesn't understand your situation just how badly your group is or your group of people is suffering.

So in the example from Saigon in 1963 that you mentioned, the aim was very much to speak to an American audience, to show the American public just what was going on in South Vietnam under the government that was sponsored by the United States.


And so the idea is to speak to, to address and to get the attention of a very distant audience. That's the first sort of motivation. The second motivation is to strengthen the resolve of your fellow people. So now you're directing your action, or your action is mainly intended for your local audience. But you're wanting to say, you know, we need to show greater resolve, and I'm willing to kill myself, and so I hope that my fellows will be willing to perhaps take part in the street demonstrations or to do some other more modest action for our collective cause.

CONAN: I read in a piece you wrote for Foreign Policy titled "Ultimate Sacrifice" that in fact this act has caused the definition of the word immolation to change.

BIGGS: Yes, I mean classically immolation means sacrifice. I mean, the etymology is sacrifice. And yet since the 1960s it's now come more and more to be used to mean death by fire or a fiery death.

CONAN: And fire, why - this - is the act augmented by choosing such a painful death?

BIGGS: Yes, I think it's obviously - partly we can find earlier examples of suicide protests, earlier in the 20th century. So for example in Japan, Japanese people protesting against the exclusion of Japanese from the United States in 1924, they committed suicide by disemboweling themselves, the sort of traditional Japanese seppuku. So we find suicide protests earlier, and it's really this action in 1963 that attaches suicide protest with fire and that now most cases, the vast majority of cases of suicide protest are carried out by fire.

It's partly because of this terrible - the fact that it's a very painful death. It's also a very visually - you can capture this on film and you can show a picture of this in a way you can't show a picture of someone being disemboweled. So it's a very kind of tele-visual protest.

And also, it also has a kind of cultural resonance in some cultures in the way that fire is purifying. So for us, I think, in the Christian tradition or the Western tradition, fire is often kind of horrifying. But of course in Buddhist or Hindu traditions fire has much more a positive resonance of something that's purifying and holy.

CONAN: You wrote in that piece that the monk in Saigon in 1963, that changed things. Among those horrified by it was President Kennedy.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. He realized that the effect on American public opinion, also global public opinion - remember, of course, the United States was in a Cold War, and this was terribly bad publicity for the Western side. If you say, you know, that here's our great democracy in South Vietnam, and yet a Buddhist monk is willing to set himself on fire to protest against religious persecution, then that's very, very bad for - it was used by the communists as propaganda, and of course it was very bad for the West.

So the feeling was we have to make sure this regime changes.

CONAN: And it did, in an American-sponsored coup just a couple months later.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. So that's a very clear connection between the action, these actions - and of course there were lots of other protests going on as well, street demonstrations and so on, by monks, and that very clearly and quickly led to the overthrow of the government.

CONAN: Yet we have in the case of Tibet over 100 now, and as mentioned, very little change.

BIGGS: Yes, I think that the situations are very, very different because of course the - well, the Tibetan cause already has considerable amount of sympathy among the Western public. But of course there's nothing that Western governments can do or want to do in forcing China. China is a major power, and you cannot boss China around like the United States bossed South Vietnam around.

CONAN: And also those images, they do get out to the West, but they are not seen in China.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, and so China can censor at least the majority of the Han - the local majority population, the Han Chinese, from seeing these. And even if they did see them, I'm not entirely sure that - I mean Chinese nationalism is very strong, and so I'm not sure that they would garner such great sympathy. But that's of course speculative.

But it's not - you know, it's certainly not the case that the Tibetans have been trying to speak directly to the Chinese public, or the majority Chinese public.

CONAN: Joining us now to talk about Tibet is Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, author of a number of books, including "Lhasa: Streets with Memories." Thanks very much for being with us today.

ROBERT BARNETT: My pleasure.

CONAN: And what's the cause of this recent wave, the past four years of these horrible protests?

BARNETT: Well there's of course a long history of 60 years of rather troubled rule by China in Tibet in which the Chinese have been really rather aggressive in trying to persuade Tibetans that they are Chinese and a part of China. It hasn't really worked. But the thing that seems to spark this in an area which had been relatively calm for some 30 years was a decision in about 1998 to ban the photographs of the Dalai Lama and quietly to ban worship of him.

This had already been done in western Tibet a few years earlier, but from '98 they began to push this idea, this policy across the eastern areas which had been much more relaxed after the death of Mao and where people had been allowed to practice religion, at least to a considerable extent.

So a very big change there in religious policy, particularly about the Dalai Lama and a number of other issues: nomads being made to settle; language, Tibetan language being gradually withdrawn from schools; very strong controls on information and travel; these kinds of issues as well. But I think the religious question is primary.

CONAN: Those of us in the West might see this as a sign of despair. Do you find that to be accurate?

BARNETT: It's hard to say. I mean I think that we have to listen carefully to what Michael said about this being a way to try to reach the ears of important people. Of course Westerners and exiles tend to see it as trying to reach the ears of the international community, but I think as Michael explained it's really about trying to get the Chinese leadership to pay attention to what's happening in their far-flung western areas.

And this may be a way to also - I don't know if it's to rally the community, I don't think that's an intention of these immolators, but it's a way to express a real commitment to their cultural and religious ideals. It's probably not thought through as a deliberate strategy. It just makes huge sense within the terms of traditional Buddhism, the idea of self-sacrifice for a noble cause, that's very strong in Buddhism, and the idea that there is something here that's been threatened: the culture, the language, the religion, and the nation, really, by current Chinese policy.

But it's not a clear political movement or a specific strategy.

CONAN: We mentioned there had been little change. There's been little reform. There has been a change, and that has been, of late, a crackdown by the Chinese government.

BARNETT: Yes, it's very interesting. In the first like year and a half or so of these terrible self-immolations in Tibet, the Chinese officials were very uncertain about how to proceed. But the realized very quickly they shouldn't criticize monks, and instead they started to say that the monks, most of the first year, the first 40 cases or so were monks or nuns or former monks.

And they didn't criticize them, but they criticized the people around them, who they accused of helping them. And they regarded the immolators as, quote, innocents. But recently, in the last two and a half months, they've very radically changed this approach and begun to arrest almost anybody they can find in some areas who they can accuse of inciting immolations.

It seems to be anybody who expresses the idea that an immolation is justified in Buddhism or is noble. These people seem to be arrested in some areas. It's not the same in every area, but it's - they're offering large amounts of money for information about immolators. One person has already received a suspended death sentence for supposedly inciting immolation.

It looks to me that he just expressed support for the notion and said the people who'd done it were heroic. So we've moved into a very aggressive phase here, trying to contain this wave.

CONAN: Michael Biggs, let me ask you. As Robert Barnett just mentioned, the first 40 or so were monks or nuns or ex-monks. Now it has begun to widen. There are people from all walks of life who've now become immolators in Tibet. What's the significance of that?

BIGGS: Well, I suppose it shows the incredibly, the incredibly positive resonance that these actions have with the general public, with the general Tibetan people. And we find a similar pattern in South Vietnam, where first of all it was monks, and then ordinary lay people began to copy the action as well. So I think it shows just how not popular but how much symbolic resonance this action has with the ordinary people, who see this as a, you know, exemplary action by monks; a few brave people who are not monks will try to imitate and strengthen the cause by following in the same, in their footsteps.

CONAN: We're talking about self-immolation. Our guests: Robert Barnett, he is the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University; Michael Biggs is also with us, you just heard him, a sociologist who studies social movements and collective protests at the University of Oxford. Stay with us. When we come back, we'll get to the Tibetan perspective. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. When Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in Vietnam in 1963, journalist David Halberstam was there. In his book "The Making of a Quagmire," he remembered that day. Please note the description is graphic.

Flames were coming from a human being. His body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh. Human beings burn surprisingly quickly, Halberstam wrote. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think.

Today we're talking about recent self-immolations, more than 100 in Tibet in the last four years now. Michael Biggs of the University of Oxford and Robert Barnett of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University are our guests. Joining us now is Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs at the International Campaign for Tibet. He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.


CONAN: And I - what's been the response to these immolations among Tibetans?

TSERING: I think there are two broad responses, and we're talking about Tibetans in the free world, not inside Tibet. First is the strong emotional connection that people have sort of got upon learning from these reports, these emotional connections both of sorrow that yet another Tibetan has died, just like in the case of yesterday, and at the same time admiring their courage of willingness to do the utmost for the sake of their people. So that's one aspect of it.

The other aspect is to say what is there that we can do outside that really you cannot at all match what the people inside Tibet have done but that can really help change the situation for the people inside Tibet to no longer have to do those things.

CONAN: Do their utmost, the ultimate sacrifice, yet is it productive?

TSERING: Yeah, that again is subjective, but from one perspective, I would say that these people, more than 104 now, people who have lost their - many of whom have lost their lives, have not died in vain. As much as we talk about the international community or the international media not paying enough attention, but at the same time I believe two centers of power, if you will, one the international government and the Chinese government, even though they may not say much outside, internally they are both discussing the impact of the Tibetan self-immolation.

And since we're in Washington, D.C., I know for a fact that the American government is very much concerned about what's happening, and they're trying to deal with this situation in a diplomatic manner. So from that perspective, it has had impact. For governments to realize that unless they take action somehow, things might go overboard.

Similarly with the Chinese government, although what you see in the Chinese official media or from Chinese spokespeople is only something that can expand the gap between Tibetans and the Chinese further. But internally the Chinese authorities are in a dilemma. They haven't expect - they did not expect the Tibetan self-immolations to begin at all. They did not expect the Tibetan self-immolations to go so far.

And so as your previous speakers have outlined, from the initial state of denial of the self-immolation to the fact that this self-immolation is because of outside forces, today now they are at a stage where they're trying to victimize the self-immolators and their family members and acquaintances.

So these are all because the self-immolations are having an impact on the Chinese government.

CONAN: The Chinese government, of course, blames the Dalai Lama group, as they describe it. He of course has stepped down as the political leader of the Tibetan government in exile. He has, though, been criticized by some for not taking a stand on self-immolations.

TSERING: Sure, I think those people who have criticized him have done so because they are so emotionally moved by what's happened with the self-immolators. So like any person, even Tibetans, to Tibetans every person that dies is a matter of sadness. And so if it's so for an average Tibetan, it's more so to the Dalai Lama, who symbolizes the Tibetan people's feelings.

For example, in 2008, when there was this pan-Tibetan protest, and how the - when the Chinese authorities clamped down heavily, the Dalai Lama was in New Delhi then and he was so much emotionally moved by what was happening to his people and that he couldn't do anything concretely.

Similarly now, it's easy for us to say the Dalai Lama should say stop self-immolation, but that doesn't end the problems for the Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama knows this. If you look at - it's not that he hasn't said anything at all, he has said many things. He has expressed his sorrowness, he has expressed the fact that self-immolation may not be able to achieve the result that people want.

But at the same time, he has admired their courage. And what I interpret his statement as saying, that even if he says, for example, he asks the Tibetan people to stop the self-immolation today, it could be that they might stop, but their problems will not end unless the Chinese authorities change their policies.

And so the Chinese are not willing to do that.

CONAN: Let me turn back to Robert Barnet. Bhuchung Tsering just said that he thinks behind the scenes the Chinese government is debating this issue. Is there any evidence of that?

BARNETT: Well, I do have some evidence of that, actually. (Unintelligible) internal, you know, but we have sources, and they have been - you know, people have been sent to tell us about this. And I think it's probably true. I think there's been a major change in the Chinese view that whether these things are really caused by the Dalai Lama and the exiles, I think they now recognize they are caused by these mishandled, grossly mishandled religious policies and a whole raft of other policies over many years.

But the problem is not whether that change has happened. I think Bhuchung's right. But I think the problem is whether the new leadership in China is able to push forward any change. It faces a very resistant bureaucracy. It faces a whole industry of people in security forces, in various offices, in local governments, whose whole careers depend on having a security threat, that they're the hard men who are sent there to control it, and they're going to go on pushing very hard for a tough policy.

It's not easy for a Chinese leader to use up all his political capital in pushing through a more moderate approach. So even if the view has changed, it doesn't mean you will see a change in policy or not enough of a change to satisfy the Tibetans in the villages where this is happening.

CONAN: Bhuchung Tsering, I've spoken with some Tibetans, obviously people outside, who fear that if change does not come, suicide, immolations, will become suicide bombs.

TSERING: That is something that is possible, I would say, but I'm not saying it will happen. If at all there is not enough action taken by the Chinese authorities to deal with the situation - leave aside the political aspect of it - talk of the Tibetan people as the Chinese leaders themselves claim, as citizens of the People's Republic of China. Has the Chinese government done enough to look after the grievances of its own citizens?

Therefore if - this is sort of a forewarning to the Chinese leadership that unless they address the genuine grievances of the Tibetan people, or as the United Nations called it underlying issues, they cannot expect stability in the Tibetan area, they cannot expect stability among the Tibetan people, because what the Chinese authorities are doing is on the one hand they're claiming Tibet to be part of China, but in all other fields they're treating Tibetans as outsiders.

And so today, when China is a more open society, where you and I, for example, know that while many (unintelligible) talk about China increasingly becoming open, Tibetans have difficulty, for example, simple thing like getting a passport. A Chinese can get a passport in one week. A Tibetan, leave alone getting passport; those Tibetans who have passports, their passports are being confiscated.

And that - and also, Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, but more importantly to Tibetan Buddhists, it's a Mecca for them. Foreigners can go to Lhasa easily or easily in a relative sense. For Tibetans to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa from - I'm not talking about Tibetans outside, Tibetans in Tibet, going from their area to Lhasa, they need at least four different permits.

In that sort of a situation things can change in a radical way, and that the Chinese authorities will have to be - will have to take the blame.

CONAN: Michael Biggs, is there any evidence in history of a movement of self-immolation turning to a movement of suicide bombs?

BIGGS: No, no, they're generally quite different phenomena. The one, I suppose, possible exception would be the Kurds and the PKK, the Kurdish rebels in Turkey who have used suicide attacks in Turkey but have also - their sympathizers or their Kurdish exiles in Europe have used self-immolation, but those are in any quite different local situations. So I don't think - I think the kind of ethos that gives rise to this kind of self-sacrifice is not - is very different from the ethos that gives rise to suicide attacks.



TSERING: Part of me actually feels, by the way the Chinese authorities are dealing with the self-immolation, they want the Tibetan people to turn the way you and I are talking about right now, take a violent turn so that then, they can blame the Tibetans easily as terrorists and then clamp down more heavily. That's what they're aiming at, I think.

CONAN: Is that the - as - I know you've written about this, Michael Biggs. Is that - would that be the effect, do you think?

BIGGS: No. I think the Chinese government is - of course, has experience with dealing very successfully with quelling a movement that uses suicide protest, because in 2001, the Falun Gong - some practitioners of Falun Gong set themselves of fire in Tiananmen Square to protest against the persecution of Falun Gong. And the Chinese government was very effective in actually turning that to their advantage - to the government's advantage and repressing the movement successfully. So I think the Chinese government has a kind of a model where they say: We can use repression effectively to deal with these kind of internal challenges.

CONAN: So if - bad enough now, but God forbid, there should be suicide bombs, the repression, you would think, would be much harsher.

BIGGS: Yes. Well, I mean, it may well be that they realize with 100, that - you know, and this has gone on for some - quite a few years, and it's, you now, there may be, as Robert suggests, they're rethinking their strategy. But I think they - the default position is obviously to use more repression. And the more suicide protests you found over the last couple of years in Tibet, or by Tibetans, the more the repression against the monasteries has been escalated, which, of course, leads to more suicide protests, suicide bombs. Yes.

CONAN: Does - is there - these are shocking, horrific incidents. But is there a law of diminishing returns?

BIGGS: Yes. One would - well, one wouldn't think so, but - the most - this is exceptionally prolonged episode. Usually, we might find a dozen people in a large wave, but this is - there's only one wave that's been larger, in the 20th century of suicide protests. And so this is really, you know, really exceptional. But I think the - when the initial actions become - have this kind of resonance, then in some sense, that becomes a justification for others to - can also contribute in the same way to the struggle. So there's a kind of a positive feedback that goes on there, that one act justify - leads to another - brings forth another actor, in some sense, to justify and to increase it.

CONAN: We're speaking with Michael Biggs, sociologist who studies social movements and collective protests at the University of Oxford. Also with us, Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, and Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs at the International Campaign for Tibet. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Bhuchung Tsering, as we've said, yes, maybe the United States government is talking about this. In private, is it talking about this with the Chinese?

TSERING: I think the State Department spokesperson was asked just this question recently. And they have said that at every opportunity they have interaction with the Chinese leadership, they raise these issues and they express their concern. What we would like the United States government and other governments to do is not just raise this as a checklist, but be concerned about the implication of the heightened tension that this might lead to and what it means, and to sort of have a preventive measure before anything bad happens.

The United States has also asked the Chinese, while asking the Tibetans, to stop self-immolating (unintelligible). They have also asked the Chinese government to address the underlying issues, and these are important diplomatic positions that the Chinese authorities realize. And I think we have outlined many of the implications in our report, "Storm in the Grasslands."

CONAN: Robert Barnett, let me ask you if the Chinese government faces this human rights crisis in Tibet. There are crises with other minorities, as well, in the country. Clearly, the political rights of the Han Chinese, the majority, are not what we would regard in the West as adequate, either. There's the propping off of the Gulag state of North Korea, which China is also responsible for. Does this matter to the Chinese government?

BARNETT: Well, it does seem to matter, because if you think about the number of protests that happened in China, as a whole, within a year, it seems to be - according to some Chinese reports - about 100,000 major incidents a year, many of them in towns and cities across China about environmental pollution, about appropriation of land, and so on. That's 100,000. They often involve thousands of people. And they're mainly dealt with pretty quickly. Officials are replaced. Investigations are promised.

But in Tibet, if you have one demonstration or three or four demonstrations, they basically move in the military immediately these days. So that's a very important indicator of how China sees these Tibetan protests. And I think the issue here is that it's very concerned about protests that have a similar rationale, but have a connecting potential that could become a movement, which is what we're seeing with the self-immolations.

An incident in China hints about a specific local problem, but an incident in Tibet is always about Tibet. So it could easily spread. And, of course, it's spreading in an area that is - the Tibetan Plateau is a quarter of the size of China, not very heavily populated. Tibetans are about 0.4 percent of the population. But the land they occupy is very, very sensitive. It's the highland between India and China. It's the source of all of China's water supplies, basically. It's a very sensitive area. So they do tend to take this much more seriously, and that's partly why they crack down so strongly. But also, they don't like something that could be unified by a religious or a national ideal. That's very worrying to them.

CONAN: And have you seen - there's, of course, new leadership in Beijing. The handover's not quite complete. But have you seen - and I have to make this brief - any indication from the new leadership of a new approach?

BARNETT: Well, one of the questions is we don't really know whether the new leadership is running these things yet. A lot of decisions are made at the local level. Some decisions are made by incumbents who are still there from the previous leadership. It doesn't, as you say, fully change until March. We don't yet know when this leadership can step forward and stamp its new ideas on the situation. Maybe it doesn't have any new ideas. Maybe it's going to be very careful. They can't bring them in for another couple of years. I think all the bets are off on this. China is a black box in terms of leadership thinking.

CONAN: Robert Barnett, thank you very much for your time today.

BARNETT: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Barnett joined us from a studio at the Columbia Journalism School. He teaches the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia. Our thanks as well to Michael Biggs at Oxford University, were he studies social movements, and Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs at the International Campaign for Tibet, who was here with us in Studio 3A. When we come back from short break, we're going to be dissecting movie trailers ahead of the Oscars. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.