In 1963 an elderly Buddhist monk assumed the lotus position at an intersection in Saigon, Vietnam.
Other monks doused him in gasoline. Then he set himself on fire.
The American journalist David Halberstam was there. “Flames were coming from a human being,” he wrote. “I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.”
The monk’s protest, directed against Vietnam’s rulers, shocked the world. But it was not an impulsive act.
Michael Biggs is a sociologist at Oxford University. He said the Vietnamese monks worked to maximise the impact of the self-immolation.
“They made sure that there were plenty of media watching, and there was one American journalist who could take photographs. Lots of other Buddhist supporters around him blocked the fire engines from reaching him.”
Four other monks and a nun followed his example in the following weeks, and burned themselves to death. Months later, the Vietnamese regime was overthrown.
Self-immolation, Michael Biggs said, was interpreted by some as an act that could produce results — that could change the status quo.
It could be a productive, not a destructive, thing to do.
“A handful of people elsewhere thought ‘If he can be successful or the Buddhist monks can be successful, perhaps that’s something — if I’m willing to make that ultimate sacrifice — that I could do too,” Biggs said.
Acts of self-immolation soon moved beyond Vietnam.
Over the last four decades, instances have been recorded in countries including India, South Korea, Hungary, Great Britain and Japan.
Lanny Berman directs the American Association of Suicidology in Washington. Berman said that, in general, a willingness to self-immolate betrays significant mental illness.
“Most of the research literature on self-immolation says that people who are willing to withstand that degree of pain as a form of death generally are rather psychotic or very seriously disturbed,” Berman said.
It’s unlikely that those setting themselves on fire in protest think of themselves that way. Those who self-immolate often justify their action, said Michael Biggs at Oxford.
“Most religious systems and cultures have prohibitions on suicide but of course it’s possible to say this is not a suicide, this is not for personal reasons, I’m giving my life for the political cause or the community so it’s really not suicide,” Biggs said.
Self-immolation traveled across the globe because it was simple to understand and simple to reproduce. And, Biggs suggested, while fire is central to many religions and cultures, fire might not be at the core of the act’s power.
“It’s hard to divorce fire from the fact that this particular case in 1963 used fire,” Biggs said. “Because perhaps we might imagine that if the Buddhist monk had done something else, like for example cut open his belly as some earlier Japanese suicide protests had done, perhaps that would have become the tactic.”
Instead, said Biggs, the use of fire is, for want of a better phrase, ‘media friendly’.
“Because it provides a terrible, gruesome image, but not one that is too gruesome to be shown on television or in a newspaper,” he said.
Until these last few weeks, Biggs hadn’t seen instances of self-immolation take place in predominately Muslim nations such as Tunisia and Algeria.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen.
In recent years, for instance, there have been many instances of self-immolation among women in Afghanistan.
Though rare, this is a form of violent protest that knows no cultural boundaries.
What began on the streets of Saigon has since gone global.