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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Self-immolation: Performing Protest with Fire -- Part 2: Viewing and Reviewing

Introduction: the Jan. 2011 regime change in Tunisia can be traced back to a single trigger event - On Dec 17th a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was publicly abused and humiliated by the police for selling  vegetables without a permit. Frustrated at the obstacles to simply making a living and the denial of basic human dignity he publicly set himself on fire. The jarring intensity of the act caught the attention of the Tunisian public, who strongly identified with the young man’s plight. Several more incidents of self immolation followed in Tunisia, as well as in Algeria and Egypt, and majorly contributed to the burst of protests and revolutions across North African and the Middle East. Self immolation as performed political protest has been a high profile practice since the early 1960’s, but until now has been largely unreported in the Arab world. 

Last year in Toronto I delivered a paper on self immolation. Given that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the catalyst for such unprecedented events in the middle east I wanted to cannibalize some of last year’s paper to shed a little light on this practice. This is part two of a three-part blog. Part one can be found here

Remembering the performance 

Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon.
-Emile Durkheim

What follows the performance of self immolation? No act takes place in a vacuum, and once performed, such an act cannot be undone. But the act does not simply end with the death of the actor; even the hottest fire leaves a residue. There is the body, of course which must be removed and disposed of.  As mentioned before, if the act is interrupted the self-immolator is likely to suffer for days before dying, and often times this grants additional time for the promulgation of the self-immolator’s message.  Most survivors the initial fire shown no remorse or regret for their actions, insisting that they would repeat the act despite the pain it caused them. Jan Palnic, a Czechoslovakian who survived for almost a week before succumbing to his injuries, did not regret his own actions, but discouraged other Czechoslovakian's from following suit, on the grounds that only one person needed to suffer as horribly as he had.

Because of the ideologically charged nature of the act, self-immolators almost always leave a written record of why they undertook such an extreme action. Tich Quang Duc left an explicitly worded note explaining and justifying his actions.  He also left behind a nearly mythic relic: his heart.  After his self immolation, his charred body was taken away for cremation, but according to all accounts, the cremation failed to consume his heart.  Instead the organ survived the fire, was placed in a crystal goblet and retained by the monastery as a relic of the event and as a symbol of Tich Quang Duc’s standing as a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being who has deferred his own transcendence for the sake of others.  The automobile that dropped him off at the intersection on the morning of June 11 is also preserved in his memory, with a copy of Malcolm Brown’s iconic photo affixed to the dashboard.  In the picture, the car itself can be seen parked behind the burning monk moments before his death. Indexically, the car and the photo reference each other and they both reference Tich Quong Duc’s self immolation.

Similar (though somewhat subordinate) reverence is shown towards all of the other Vietnamese monks who self immolated, whether in response to the Diem regime, the conflict between North and South Vietnam, or the American involvement. Memorials are maintained by their monasteries and by the Vietnamese government.  Additionally, the Vietnamese government and Tich Quang Duc’s monastery also memorialize the Americans who self immolated in solidarity with the monks and the Vietnamese people. Their actions are accepted at face value, and deemed worthy of gratitude and appreciation by the Vietnamese people.

This remembrance of the dead self immolators is far from common, however. In Europe there are a few memorials to the Czechoslovakian self immolators, who are also revered as national heroes.  Similarly, in Poland a monument has been erected in honor of Polish self immolator Ryszard Siwiec.  In America and most other locations there are no national monuments.  Any commemoration that is done is done by private citizens, usually family or friends. Given the absence of public monuments in the US, the primary way in which self immolation is remembered or referenced is through its depiction in various media.

Replaying and referencing the performance
One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.
-Kurt Vonnegut

Most American news agencies avoid showing overly graphic footage of human death on US television, particularly violent human death.  As such, self immolation is not exactly fodder for the evening news, although mention of its occurrence will usually appear in print media. During the run-up to the US occupation of Iraq, three people committed suicide or self immolation in protest. Their actions received slight mention, but very little attention in the national news at the time.

Until the advent of the Internet, the only readily available footage of self immolation available in the US was found on “Faces of Death”, a notorious video compilation of archival and historical films of actual humans dying in a multitude of ways. This panoply of horrific and gruesome footage featured a few films of self immolation devoid of ideological context amidst dozens of other examples of human death. The internet has changed this.  Now, In addition to an abundance of articles and online discussions on the issue, the Internet provides a wealth of video footage as well.  A search for “self immolation” on youtube.com returns hundreds of videos and picture slideshows of actual self immolations, including two films of Tich Quang Duc's self immolation, and other immolations from Sri Lanka, Canada, Korea, and Eastern Europe.  Some of the videos are from films shot almost 40 years ago, and some of them are only a few months old, shot on cheap digital video devices or even cell phones. With the trend towards the ubiquity of security cameras and handheld video cameras integrated into cell phones, the likelihood is that video examples of self immolation will become much more common in the future.

The memory of Tich Quang Duc was most famously referenced in 1992, when the antiestablishment hard rock/funk/rap band known as Rage Against the Machine used Brown's photo of Tich Quong Duc as the cover of their debut album. The album, a self titled politically charged anti-colonialist rant from beginning to end went platinum in a little over a year, and continued to sell at high volume for several years to follow.  The cover was the stark black-and-white image of Tich Quang Duc on fire, marked only with the typewritten eponymous band name/album title. The power of Brown’s iconic photograph is inarguable - Robert Kennedy referred to the image as “the most powerful image of the decade.” Communications scholar Michelle Murray did a visual analysis of this photograph and reached many of the conclusions that I have already mentioned 


Another elaborate instance of creative semiotic indexicality is found in the 2001 movie "Waking Life", a well-received independent art film.  The movie is a meditation on awareness, death and dreaming that is presented in a distinctive format known as “rotoscoping” – a technique where a layer of animation is laid overtop of the original footage of the actors, adding a dreamlike quality to the film. Towards the end of the movie the central character is listening to a man with a gas can talk about the nature of self destruction, chaos and tragedy.  The man concludes his monologue by sitting cross-legged on the ground and dousing himself with the contents of the gas can. His final words are, “I feel that the time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes. Let my own lack of voice be heard.” At that point he sets himself on fire and the animated flames engulf him as he sits silently.  After a brief period, his flaming body collapses to one side, and the movie continues on to the next scene.

These few examples are hardly indicative of a clear trend. Replaying and referencing self immolation in media or through media is seldom practiced, but it is even less common in a real-life setting. To view the act on a screen is to be separated by a degree of mediation, facilitated by the willing suspension of disbelief, while the actions of the self immolator are much stronger when experienced directly - more compelling recreations of the performance do exist..

Reenacting the performance 

The first notable reenactment took place a few years after Tich Quang Duc’s original performance. In 1967 the 17-year-old son of an American embassy worker in Vietnam doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, imitating the performances of self immolation that seemed to be everywhere at the time. The rapid response of passersby saved his life, and during his convalescence he was asked about his reasons for such extreme behavior.  His response was simply, "I wanted to know how it felt." This seems to be part of a larger trend in American media, the intentional or inadvertent separation of the act of self immolation from its accompanying ideology.

On January 23, 2001, the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, several self immolations took place in Tiananmen Square. Contradictory government reports placed the number of self immolators between five and seven, and fatalities at either one or two.  A week after the incident, heavily edited footage of two of the immolation incidents was released by the government, along with interviews with two bandaged individuals who were described as survivors of the incident.  One of the victims, according to government news reports, was a 12-year-old girl who had been pushed into the act by her mother.  All of the survivors vigorously blamed and denounced Falun Gong, the religious organization to which they had allegedly previously belonged.  All of the persons who had performed the act were described as victims of manipulation, brainwashing, and antigovernment propaganda.  The subsequent public shock over the event, was tremendous, and led to a dramatic shift of public sympathy away from the Falun Gong.

The Falun Gong themselves denied all responsibility for the immolation, and protested that such acts were theologically forbidden by their religion.  They also challenged the veracity of the publicly broadcasted footage of the immolations, and called for investigation. Danny Schecter, a CNN reporter who had been present at the first of the January 23 self-immolations also took issue with the broadcast footage.  He and a CNN cameraman observed the very beginning of the event, but they were quickly detained by the police, relieved of their movie footage from the event, and escorted from the scene.  Subsequent investigation raised doubts as to the actual identity of the person's described by the Chinese government, as well as the legitimacy of their connections to the Falun gong.  Even the official video itself, when closely examined reveals inconsistencies, most notably the disconcerting sight of a man in a government trench coat viciously clubbing one of the immolators in the face as she burns. Most of the official Chinese government claims regarding the nature of the event were discredited in the award-winning documentary "False Fire", but the Chinese government insists that their official account is an accurate one. Additionally, the Chinese government continues to insist that self immolation is selfish, dangerous, synonymous with terrorism, and the result of manipulation of the naïve by the unscrupulous cult members of the Falun Gong. This is similar to a narrative that was used by Indian media opposing a wave of self-immolations by low-caste Dalits protesting academic and employment discrimination in 1990 and 1991. The acts were dismissed or denigrated in a number of editorials:

“The unfortunate students suffered from a variety of psychological disorders ranging from alienation from their parents to acute depression and sense of insecurity caused by social and economic environs”

“…a general sense of fear manipulated among impressionable minds by extraneous forces which could have led to the suicide bids."

“…the extreme cynical step of encouraging self-immolation of gullible students as a weapon of political coercion,”

These denunciations are not intended to discourage the actions of the self-immolators themselves, but rather reduce the impact and perception of these performances by broader portions of the Indian and Chinese community. Because self-immolation itself is so difficult to prevent, the strategy of threatened institutions is to control the discourse over the issue while simultaneously disparaging its practice as barbaric and inhumane. Obviously, the response to performances of self immolation are likely to vary from country to country, regional variants has led to counteracting strategies by the groups that are being protested against.  This may be through actions in the press, or it may take a more direct form of physical measures on the part of the government.

After the first instance of self immolation in 1963, the Vietnamese police adopted a simpler strategy; simply club anyone trying to photograph a self immolation event. In South Korea, due to a spate of self-immolations in the past, the police have been specially trained to handle the situation/spectacle, and are quite successful at anticipating and preventing successful self immolations.  In response, however, more recent South Korean self-immolators have revised their performance style accordingly.  In order to prevent an unwarranted police interruption of a self immolation, the recent trend among self immolators in Korea is now to perform the act in a highly visible but inaccessible location like a tower of a bridge span, and throw one's burning self off of the staging location.

Recently, during a self immolation in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet a Chinese police officer took dramatic measures, and fatally shot the self immolating protester before the burning body was extinguished. The Chinese government claims that the police officer acted in this fashion because there was no other way for him to prevent the spread of fire except through severe self injury.  This may be indicative of a new strategy on the part of the Chinese government.  If the Chinese government can establish a narrative that defines self-immolation as a public danger to others, they will be able to act against it with extreme prejudice and force. Concurrent with this approach, there have also been reports of Chinese police beating undesirable political activists severely, setting their unconscious bodies on fire, and then attributing their deaths to self-immolation.

The most recent trend in self immolation is a heretofore unknown unobserved co-implementation of self immolation and suicide bombing by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Previously, it was generally accepted, that cultures and movements that used self immolation as a form of protest did so as an alternative to the use of violence towards their opponents, and that organizations and movements willing to utilize the suicide bombing is a tactic would have little or no use or need for self immolation with the two practices acting as opposite poles on a spectrum of violent fiery self-inflicted death. This new trend contradicts the conventional wisdom on self immolation, and is too novel to be fully addressed yet.  This is significant because the Tamil tigers were the group to actively deploy suicide bombers against civilian targets.  It is not clear from my research whether this-self immolation is a tactic utilized by more moderate elements within the Tamil independence movement, or if its utility has just recently been seized upon by the same ideological organizers responsible for the extremist actions of the Tamil Tigers.

The recent incidents of self immolation in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt have brought the practice to the forefront of the world’s attention, particularly due to their location in the Islamic world. In part three of this piece I will address this new phenomenon of Muslim self-immolation…stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. This has to be the most insightful article that I've read on this subject.

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete