Dying without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002

Making Sense of Suicide Missions, ed. Diego Gambetta, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (revised paperback ed. 2006), pp. 173-208, 320-24

‘Morir sin matar: las autoinmolaciones, 1963-2002’, El sentido de las misiones suicidas, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Econůmica, 2009


Making Sense of Suicide MissionsLike a suicidal attack, an act of self-immolation involves an individual intentionally killing himself or herself (or at least gambling with death) on behalf of a collective cause. Unlike a suicidal attack, an act of self-immolation is not intended to cause physical harm to anyone else or to inflict material damage. The suicidal attack is an extraordinary weapon of war whereas self-immolation is an extreme form of protest. As an act of protest, it is intended to be public in at least one of two senses: performed in a public place in view of other people, or accompanied by a written letter addressed to political figures or to the general public. One point of terminology should be clarified at the outset. Although the word ‘immolation’ strictly means ‘sacrifice’, since the 1960s it has become synonymous with fiery death. My definition of self-immolation encompasses other methods of self-inflicted death. In addition, this is not always a solitary act; two or more individuals may coordinate their sacrifice.

This chapter is wider in scope than the others. It provides an overview of self-immolation in the last four decades, from an original database of over 500 individual acts. After introducing the sources used to compile this database, the chapter is divided into five main sections. The first sketches the history of self-immolation. The modern lineage originated with Thich Quang Duc in 1963 and subsequently diffused to dozens of countries. The second section examines the prevalence of self-immolation among causes, across countries, and over time. The collective causes show great variation, but they are not associated with suicide attacks or other acts of violence. Vietnam, South Korea, and India are countries with the highest rates of self-immolation. Analysis reveals that self-immolation is most frequent in countries with Buddhist or Hindu religious traditions and with relatively democratic political systems. The clustering of self-immolation in waves reveals how one individual’s action tends to inspire others to imitate it. The third section focuses on the orchestration of the individual action. Self-immolation is not generally preceded by threats, and it does not usually involve organization. By far the most common method is burning, which maximizes physical suffering but need not ensure death. The fourth section tackles the central question—why?—by elucidating the various motivations for self-immolation. Two are prominent: appealing to bystanders and inciting sympathizers. The promise of supernatural rewards is not a significant motive, nor are suicidal tendencies or psychopathology. The final section considers the effects of the action. While most acts of self-immolation have no discernible impact, a small minority evoke a tremendous response, especially from sympathizers. Some episodes of self-immolation have shifted the balance of power between protesters and their opponents, albeit sometimes in an unexpected direction.

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Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford