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How Self Immolation Became A Thing of Political Drudgery

Words by: Jonathon Davidson

In late April of this year, Nauru processing camp inmate Omid Masoumali doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight. He later died from his injuries, and a video which caught the event on film was never released to the public due to its confrontational nature. Less than a week later, Somalian national Hodan Yasin – also an inmate at Nauru detention centre – doused herself in flammable liquid and lit herself on fire. A third man detained at Nauru tried to do the same, but was reportedly stopped by guards.

These are acts of extreme protest. To self-immolate is to willingly choose one of the most painful modes of death imaginable. The role of pain and suffering is paramount – self-immolation is political because it allows for martyrdom. The entire point is that self-immolation is so shocking, so violent, so entirely unimaginable and nerve racking, that it is designed to shock people out of dormancy.

Once, self-immolation was an effective tool at shocking people out of dormancy. Today, it is not.

The acts of self-immolation on Nauru have gone unmentioned for a month now. They received their 15 minutes of fame, and then went quiet. The journalists who covered the stories moved onto other assignments. Peter Dutton created outrage elsewhere. Nobody forgot, and nobody remembered.

So, how did we get to the point where young people lighting themselves on fire became just another part of the news media cycle? There was outrage, but there was no inquiry. There was disgusted opinion pieces, but there was no legal action of any kind. There was criticism, but it lacked a framework for action.

Omid Masoumali is dead, but Hodan Yasin is not. She will live the rest of her life disfigured. She made an incredibly brave choice to try and shake off the chains of apathy, but her bravery was in vain, and what must have taken nights and nights to build up the courage for has now been disregarded and pushed under the rug of collective memory.

Fifty three years ago, things were different.

On the 11th of June 1963, Thích Quảng Đức sat in the center of an intersection in Saigon. A wide circle of other monks stood around him in traditional robes. Western journalists were invited to the event only hours earlier, loosely informed that they were going to witness a protest. He was drenched in gasoline. Thích Quảng Đức was then set alight.

The rest is history. You’ve seen the photo. If you’re a bit more aware, you’ve probably seen the footage.

What Thích Quảng Đức was protesting was the anti-Buddhist practices of the pro-US Southern Vietnamese Diệm government, whose secret police had raided and looted Buddhist pagodas across Southern Vietnam. While this event pre-dated the commonly accepted timeframe of “the” Vietnam war, it became an unwavering symbol of the passions involved. Photos of Thích Quảng Đức sitting cross legged at the intersection consumed by flame made front page news across the world. While in 1963 American support for military involvement in Vietnam was fairly uniform, the photo later came to justify the moral beliefs of the anti-war movement.

What you may not be aware of is the copycat acts which followed. Several Americans were inspired by Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation, and several instances of self-immolation on American soil made brief media appearances. Four years later, a second monk self-immolated in South Vietnam. Seventy three year old Chunoshin Yui self-immolated in Japan, also protesting the Vietnam war.

It did not take long for political self-immolation to break free from its Vietnam war roots. Even in 1964, a young man in India committed self-immolation as protest against the eradication of the Tamil language.

In 1968, Polish national Ryszard Siwiec self-immolated in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Between 1968 and 1969, there were at least seven notable instances of self-immolation that took place in Europe as protest against Communist rule.

From the 1970’s to the 2000’s, Wikipedia lists twenty seven significant instances of self-immolation, ranging from Bulgaria to the Communist bloc to Greece.

Between 2010 and 2016, there have been 70 significant acts of self-immolation.While we must consider the evolving capabilities of the media, it is clear that self-immolation has picked up traction as a tool of protest since 1963. It should also be noted that 1963 was by no means the birth date of self-immolation, but rather its conception as a politically charged tool of protest.

We have become desensitized to the shock of violent death on our screens. When we hear that a young man has killed himself via self-immolation on Nauru, we are outraged, our heart rate rises, we click on the comments and leave a notion of support. But that is all we can do. Then, another young woman skirts the edge of death by following the same course of action. We are outraged again, but this time, a little less so.

It seems to be that for the people on Nauru, the decision to eliminate themselves in the most violent way possible has become another element of bureaucracy.