Four Tibetans have doused themselves in petrol and then lit themselves alight in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. The story is not as shocking as it may have once been. Since the middle of 2011, over sixty Tibetans have committed self-immolation in protest at China’s continuing rule over their ancestral homelands and supposed persecution of their indigenous religious and political practices.
Self-immolation has become an increasingly common statement of protest in East Asia, particularly amongst Buddhist communities; indeed the predominant offenders are monks. A spate of self-immolations in Burma during 2007 and 2008 brought attention to the “Saffron Revolution” led by the country’s monks in non-violent protest against the military junta that governed the country. There have been many reports of self-immolation in Thailand during the political and social unrest there over the past few years.
All of these acts, of course, stem from one legendary moment. In 1963, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death on a busy roadside in Saigon to protest against the persecution of his co-religionists by the South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The photograph that captured the incident reverberated around the world and directly led to US President John F Kennedy withdrawing support for Diem and conspiring to arrange his assassination.
Self-immolation had happened before, of course, particularly in the Buddhist and Hindu worlds. But at that moment in 1963, Đức’s statement resonated with a Western world still coming to grips with a globalised press and interdependent international community. Since Đức, self-immolation has not had the same political impact. It has occurred in Tibet for decades and, yet, whilst the world is well aware of China’s oppression of the Tibetan people, it has led to no tangible gains for the protesters. The same can be said for the actions in Burma. The “Saffron Revolution” concerned the ruling junta not one bit. Rather, it was economic considerations and an aging military hierarchy that finally led Burma’s leaders to embrace political reform.
Quite simply, there is little that can shock the world into action these days. Our news streams, websites and online blogs are jammed with horrific stories, tragic home-made videos of the daily abuses suffered the world over by innocent people, that people become numb to the barbarity. Furthermore, if Tibetan campaigners and others like them feel it necessary to set themselves on fire just to keep their protests in the press, let alone achieve solid political concessions, then the chances of reform are slim indeed.
Unless the powerful compromise the powerful, there is little that can be done.