The History Thread is Setting Itself on Fire

This is adapted from a lyric essay I’ve been writing on and off since 2011.

At 11:30 AM on December 17, 2010, a young man approached the office of the governor of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He was a fruit seller. An hour earlier, he had been slapped and spit on by police for not having a permit to sell on the street—an invented requirement by officers looking for a bribe. There is a cultural dimension as well—the officer in charge was a woman, and his honor in this deeply misogynist expression of Islam in the Arabic world had been wounded.

But perhaps worst of all, the police had confiscated his digital scales, which represented an entire year’s worth of profit. Earlier, he had attempted to get them back with the governor’s intervention, but the governor refused to see him. 

That same morning, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, returned with only a can of gasoline and some matches. He stood under that governor’s window and shouted up at him. 

“How do you expect me to make a living?”

He poured the gasoline over his own body. 

Then he struck a match, and lit himself on fire.

* * *

In contrast to Mohamed Bouazizi, three hundred Vietnamese Mahāyāna Buddhist monks and nuns accompanied the abbot of Phước Hòa pagoda as he rode into Saigon in an Austin Westminster sedan on June 11, 1963, to protest the brutal mistreatment of Buddhists by the deeply Catholic, American-backed anti-communist regime of Ngô Đình Diệm. 

The previous day, the Buddhists had told the American press in Saigon that “something important” would happen in the intersection outside the Cambodian embassy. But the Buddhist story was no longer of interest to the Americans, who had been covering the crisis for nearly a month with no change in narrative. Only two showed; a reporter and a photographer.

Thích Quảng Đức, 66, selected himself for what happened next. Younger monks tried to claim the privilege, to not deprive their community of an important elder, but they were forced to yield to his position and seniority. 

A pillow was placed in the busy intersection, grinding it to a halt. The monk exited Westminster and carefully sat upon it. Another monk upended a five-gallon can of gasoline over his head.

Thích Quảng Đức said his last prayer to the Buddha.

Then he struck a match and lit himself on fire.

* * *

Mohamed Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011, eighteen days after the day of his self-immolation, 90% of his body covered in burns. Allah showed him one kindness—he remained in a coma throughout, even as moved to hospital after hospital. He was not been awake for the visit of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia. Ben Ali promised Bouazizi would be flown to a French trauma unit, but it never comes to pass. Mohamed Bouazizi died at the Burn and Trauma Center in Ben Arous. 

Five thousand marched through Sidi Bouzid for his funeral. The police turned them back when they tried to reach the spot of his immolation. The mourners chanted a promise, “Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep.” They began the protests against Ben Ali later that same day.

Ben Ali’s government did not survive eighteen days. It survived ten. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali and his family fled to France, where they found no shelter. Next, they flew to Saudi Arabia, where the King offered them a place with a list of demands, including that Ben Ali never again involve himself in politics. He accepted, ending his rule of Tunisia since 1987.

* * *

Thích Quảng Đức survived for another ten minutes after lighting himself on fire. He did not scream or shout, he only sat, while a monk with a bullhorn told the crowd, “A Buddhist priest lights himself on fire. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.”

“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough,” wrote David Halberstam, then stationed in Saigon with The New York Times. He was “too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes, or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.” He was far from alone. The gathered denizens of Saigon began to scream and sob as the monk did not. A police officer, the ostensible enforcer of the Diệm regime’s will, prostrated himself on the ground in front of the burning monk. Others began to as well. 

The monks collected their abbot’s remains, transferring them to Xá Lợi Pagoda in central Saigon, placing his ashes in an urn. His heart, still intact, became a relic. That evening, there were reports in Saigon of the Buddha’s face, weeping, in the sky.

The monks and nuns continued to self-immolate, horrifying the United States. Four occur in August, three the week of August 13, prompting Diệm to declare martial law. The Americans could not understand it. The son of one US officer lit himself on fire. “I wanted to see what it was like,” he offered by way of explanation. The US government began to pressure Diệm to give in to the Buddhists’ demands.

Diệm refused. Instead, he began an even harsher, more brutal crackdown, accusing the Buddhists of being in league with the famously atheistic communists in the North. Shortly after midnight on August 21, 1963, Vietnamese special forces raided Xá Lợi Pagoda and others vandalizing and looting the pagodas, beating the monks, and arresting 1,400 of them around the country. At Xá Lợi, two monks escaped with Thích Quảng Đức’s ashes, leaping over the fence behind the Pagoda into the US Agency for International Development’s mission. The next day, US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., beginning his very first day on the job, refused to release them to Diệm. The special forces captured Thích Quảng Đức’s heart.

Generals in the Vietnamese Army, recognizing Diệm was becoming a liability to the US as the Buddhist situation continued to spiral out of control, began to plot a coup. Through the CIA, the US became aware of the coup. Hotly debated inside the administration, the Kennedy White House eventually simply didn’t interfere, while Lodge gave tacit words of support to the plotters. Even on the eve of the coup, Lodge personally assured Diệm that they knew nothing of an attempt to overthrow him. The US had prepared to wipe its hands of the Diem regime.

On November 2, 1963, Diệm and his brother were arrested in a Catholic church after fleeing Saigon when the Vietnamese Army attacked the presidential palace. They had their hands bound behind their backs and were placed into an armored personnel carrier with two of their former bodyguards, one armed with a bayonet and a pistol. When the APC reached Saigon, both brothers were dead. Initially, the coup plotters presented it as a suicide.

After Diệm’s fall, the immolations ceased, until the military junta of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ came into conflict with popular Buddhist military leader and anti-American General Nguyễn Chánh Thi in 1966, beginning a cluster of immolations of mostly Buddhist monks and nuns from May to June of that year. Kỳ eventually prevailed, with Thi ironically exiled to the US, and the Buddhist priests’ leader being placed under house arrest.

* * *

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sent tidal waves through the mostly despotic kingdoms and dictatorships of the Arab world. In Tunisia, the end of the Ben Ali regime is called the Jasmine Revolution. For the rest of the world, it is called the Arab Spring.

The first to follow Mohamed Bouazizi was Moshen Bouterfif, a 37-year-old father of two in Boukhadra, in neighboring Algeria. Desperate for housing and employment, he asks for a meeting with the mayor, who refuses and issues him a challenge on January 13—the day before Ben Ali fled Tunisia—if he had the courage, he would do as Mohamed Bouazizi has done.

The challenge was met later that same day when Bouterfif had the courage and burned himself alive. He died on January 24.

Dozens of Algerians followed. Four, including Bouterfif, died.

Immolations followed in Mauritania, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt. Dictatorships fell, some pushed by neighboring and Western powers, some collapsing in on their own. Many that survived did so either with brutal repression or by acceding to the demands of the popular protests that followed in the wake of each self-immolation. As of this writing, both Syria and Libya have each waged almost nine years of civil war, each becoming proxies for regional and imperialist powers alike.

* * *

Thích Quảng Đức also reverberated around the world. Three Americans burned themselves in protest, following his example, all in 1965.

It began on March 16, starting with Alice Herz, 82. Herz was a well-known Jewish peace activist in 1960s Detroit. Born in Germany, she fled the country for France in 1933. The Vichy Government placed her in an internment camp in Southern France in 1940, but she was able to reach the United States in 1942. Though she lived in the US for 23 years, working as a German teacher for Wayne State University, she was denied American citizenship due to her refusal to defend America by use of armed force.

Herz marched, and protested, and wrote letters, everything she could think of to help push the United States towards peace. She set herself on fire in her front yard on the 16th. A man out for a drive with his two sons saw her, extinguished the flames, and got her to the hospital. She died ten days later.

Norman Morrison was next, on November 2. A 31-year-old Quaker from Baltimore, he took his one-year-old daughter to the Pentagon with him. They and other peace activists went to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office window. Morrison handed his daughter off to someone in the crowd, then poured kerosene over his body and lit himself on fire, stunning the crowd.

The prominent North Vietnamese poet, Tố Hữu wrote a poem in Morrison’s honor, entitled “To Emily, My Child,” imaging an address from Morrison to his daughter. North Vietnam named a street after Morrison, as well as issued a stamp in his honor. Ironically, because of sanctions against North Vietnam, it was illegal for Americans to buy or sell this Vietnamese-made stamp honoring an American citizen. In 2007, Nguyễn Minh Triết, then-President of Vietnam, visited the Pentagon during a state visit to the US and read Hữu’s poem at the spot Morrison died.

Seven days after Morrison, on November 9, Roger Allen LaPorte, a 22-year-old Catholic Workers Movement member who had once hoped to become a priest, became the last immolation of the year. He set himself on fire outside the United Nations. Suffering second and third-degree burns over 95% of his body, he lived until the next day, conscious and able to speak. “I’m a Catholic Worker,” he said. “I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.”

* * *

Mohamed Bouazizi’s action stretched beyond the cause of Arab democracy and anti-corruption. In March 2011, it traveled to Sichuan Province, where Tibetan Buddhist monks at the Kirti Monastery began a horrific wave of self-immolations protesting Chinese rule of Tibet, starting with monk Rigzin Phuntsog. According to Chinese-affiliated media, he was 16 and was immediately treated at the hospital until some monks removed him and took him back until releasing him back to the hospital at the request of his mother, where he died. US-affiliated media describes him as 21, and that police kicked him to death after extinguishing the flames. Other outlets report that the monks said he was alive, and they took him to the monastery when the hospital refused to admit him for aid. 

Kirti Monastery was placed on lockdown, and its 2,500 monks were reduced to 600 after mass arrests. By March of 2012, at least 30 monks, most young and illiterate, many either from or formerly of Kirti Monastery, had self-immolated. 

* * *

Thích Quảng Đức’s action traveled beyond its cause as well. In August 1968, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the Prague Spring. On September 8, a Polish accountant, Ryszard Siwiec attended the national harvest festival. In front of a crowd of 100,000, including foreign dignitaries from other Warsaw Pact states, Siwiec—angered by Poland’s involvement in putting an end to the Czechoslovakian push for reforms, lights himself on fire. It was not until the spring of the next year that reports even reached outside of Poland.

On January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 21-year-old Czech student, entered Wenceslaus Square in Prague and lit himself on fire, not far from where Bohemian Christian heretic and martyr Jan Hus was burned at the stake. According to letters he had sent demanding an end to Soviet censorship, he claimed to be part of a group that planned a series of self-immolations until their demands were met, but no ready evidence has been found to support the existence of this group. He lived for three days. According to some reports, he told a visitor that no one should attempt to follow him with self-immolations. His funeral became a massive demonstration against the occupation, numbering into the thousands.

A little more than a month later, February 25—the 21st anniversary of Communist Czechoslovakia—Jan Zajíc, 18, also a Czech student, entered the hallway at Number 36 in Wenceslaus Square, and lit himself on fire, intending to run out into the square. He could not manage it. In a letter to his family, he told them “I want a lot for you, so I must pay a lot.” He also asked them to not “let them make me a madman.”

In order to head off another protest as with Palach’s funeral, state police prevented Zajíc from being buried in Prague. Years later, as Palach’s burial site became a shrine, Czechoslovakian State Security dug up Palach’s body in the middle of the night, replaced his with an elderly woman who had died, cremated Palach, and sent the urn to his mother, forbidding her from burying him for over a year. The 20th anniversary of his death in 1989 set off another major protest, and after the Velvet Revolution, in 1990 his urn was eventually returned to Prague.

* * *

From 1960 to 1969, there were over 50 recorded self-immolations around the world. Between 2010 and 2019, there were over 100 reported incidents of self-immolation in the world, more than any other time that we know. These protests have had varied causes—some have protested for democracy, some have protested against war, some have protested against corruption, some have protested against fossil fuels. Many people have been mentally ill, or very young. Very occasionally, they have died without any apparent reason, their cause unknown.

For the past 22 years, from 1998 through 2020, there has been at least one person setting themselves on fire each year.