Self-immolation isn’t what it used to be. This ultimate form of protest became global news in 1963 when Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in the middle of Saigon, protesting against religious oppression. Doused in petrol, the venerable monk sat serenely in the lotus position and lit a match. A bird of paradise thus bloomed, and quickly charred his body.
The image captured by photographer Malcolm Browne became an icon of the Vietnam war era. The term “self-immolation”, in fact, entered into common usage after the monk’s death, which led to a coup d’etat that toppled the oppressively pro-Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
Half a century later, to die by self-immolation registers little more than a media blip. Since 2009, some 117 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in a series of protests against Chinese rule.
Indeed, with the exception of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose death sparked what became known as the Arab spring, self-immolation has by all accounts become a failed form of protest as an agent of change.
Whether in Syria or Palestine, Greece, Italy or Vietnam, individuals continue to die in this way as crowds look on. Since Bouazizi, in fact, around 150 Tunisians are reported to have self-immolated in protest against the new government.
“All the Tibetans who resort to self-immolation do so because they feel they have no other way to make China and the rest of the world listen to their country’s call for freedom,” said Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, director of the London-based advocacy group Free Tibet. But China has turned a deaf ear to their cries, while the world media has averted its eyes.
Aristotle observed that the plot of a tragedy should be so framed that, even without witnessing the events, simply hearing of them should fill one with “horror and pity”. But the amphitheatre of the 21st century has been scattered and fragmented into a multitude of media platforms.
There are too many actors in too many theatres and their tragedies have lost their grip on the human psyche.
Studies about desensitisation of the modern mind are aplenty, but the general consensus is that oversaturation of images and narratives of violence have resulted in a collective numbness. A profound act of public death cannot hope to sway a world in which horror itself has lost its power. What we want instead is entertainment.
The cynical observer can’t help but wonder: if self-immolation no longer works as an agent for change, then is it still worth the price? Has it been reduced to mere suicide by fire?
At its most profound, the act is the highest form of human compassion, a confirmation of life by giving up one’s own. At its most incoherent, it becomes more expressive of the frustration of the powerless. The individual, enamoured by death, possessed by anger, elicits neither horror nor pity but cynicism. After all, to burn with passion is very different than to be consumed by rage.
Fire - this gift and curse to humanity - is a terrifying beauty. Contained, it hints at elegance, cooks our food and propels our world. Out of control, it engulfs body and soul. It seduces. It overpowers. And it destroys.
Potential self-immolators may want to rethink their relationship with fire. In a world where individuals leverage more power online than in the public square, it may be that to live burning with desire to bring attention to one’s cause - regardless of the oppression and humiliation - is the real challenge to becoming actual agents of change.
So why not live instead? And find new ways to force the world’s attention once more back onto the stage - and evoke pity and horror in us all.
To burn with that desire, to call our attention and hold our gaze until we weep - isn’t that worth living for?
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of three books - Birds of Paradise Lost, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.