Sunday, November 2, 2014

Self-Immolation as Political Protest:

So when did self-immolation go from being a predominant spiritual practice to one of political protest? Sorta from the get-go, at least in China. The earliest recorded incident of self-immolation in China was in 396 BC, when the monk Fayu burned himself alive in front of the “illegitimate” prince Yao Xu to protest his rule. Religious and laypeople admired him for his selflessness, and after that everyone was really into doing the same thing. Many Buddhist monks and nuns followed his example over the years, lighting themselves aflame as a form of political protest. While this was sometimes done during times of peace, history suggests it was far more frequent in times of crisis. It also seems that, historically, similar protest techniques were not uncommon in southeast Asia and the greater Buddhist geographic realm.

Prelude to Flames -- Ngo Dinh Diem and Thich Quảng Đức:

But the practice did not receive its modern association with agitprop until the famous Thích Quảng Đức incident of 1963. What's known about Quảng Đức's life is derived from information disseminated by Buddhist organizations. He was born in a village in the Khánh Hòa province in 1897, beginning his path toward monkhood at age seven. After he was fully ordained at age twenty, he retreated to the mountains for three years to live life as a Buddhist hermit. He would then return from isolation to become a prominent member of the Buddhist community in Saigon and central-south Vietnam, overseeing the construction of dozens of Buddhist temples and rising to a position of seniority.

President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam.
What a piece of shit.
Meanwhile, Ngo Dinh Diem's far-right authoritarian regime came into power. The history's a lot more complicated than this, but a few years after the end of WWII, internal conflict resulted in the international community dividing Vietnam into a North Vietnam, ruled by the communist Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam, ruled by Bảo Đại of the Nyugen dynasty and later Ngo Dinh Diem. Bảo Đại had initially served as a puppet head of state of a Japanese-controlled Annam protectorate, but abdicated his throne in favor of Ho Chi Minh and his supporters. He was convinced by the French to become a non-monarch head of state for the newly formed South Vietnam, but was ousted by his prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who declared himself president through a fraudulent referendum.

Diem's regime was far-right and authoritarian, marked by a myriad of anti-Buddhist, pro-Roman Catholic policies. Diem was a member of Vietnam's Catholic minority in a country estimated to be between 70 and 90 percent Buddhist, and pursued the typical dominant minority paradigm of a minority ethnic group ruling over the majority ethnic group (re: Iraq under Saddam Hussein). Diem's policies favored Catholics for public service and military promotions, as well as the allocation of land and taxes. US aid was disproportionately distributed to Catholic communities, and Catholics were exempt from corvée labor, a long-standing historical practice in Asia in which citizens are mandated to perform manual labor on public works projects for a certain number of days out of a given year. More importantly, the government's favoring of Catholics in the military resulted in some horribly negative outcomes: a large number of Buddhist army servicemen were denied promotions or even careers if they did not convert to Catholicism; when firearms were distributed to villages for the purpose of arming self-defense militias, Buddhists were denied access; Catholic priests ran their own private armies, forcing conversions, and looting and destroying places of Buddhist worship; Buddhist villages converted en masse not only to protect themselves from physical violence but to avoid being forcibly resettled by the regime's land allocation policies; and the list goes on.

The crisis culminated in the Huế Phật Đản shootings of May 1963. A large gathering of Buddhists in the city of Huế (former imperial capital of the Nyugen dynasty) protested not only the recent ban on flying the Buddhist flag (just before the important Buddhist holiday of Vesak), but the government encouragement of flying the Vatican flag instead. Unsurprisingly, government forces fired into the unarmed crowd, killing nine people. Diem and his government refused to take responsibility, blaming the communist politico-army Viet Cong for their deaths, which only led to further protests and hostility.

The Famous Photograph -- Quảng Đức's Sacrifice:

This conflict serves as the backdrop to Quảng Đức's sacrifice. On June 10th, 1963, US journalists stationed in Vietnam were informed that something important was going to happen outside of the Cambodian embassy the next day (note: some people believe that the location was a symbolic show of solidarity with the Cambodian government, who had strained relations with South Vietnam for their criticism of Diem's government). The following morning, around 350 monks and nuns marched in a procession from a nearby pagoda, being led by a sedan driving ahead of them. When the procession reached the Cambodian embassy, Quảng Đức and two other monks stepped out of the car. One monk placed a cushion on the pavement, upon which Quảng Đức sat, while another poured a container of gasoline over Quảng Đức's head. Prayers were said, and Quảng Đức struck a match and dropped it on himself, igniting his body in flames. In English and Vietnamese, a monk repeated into a microphone: “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death; a Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.”

The car in which Quang Duc traveled to his self-immolation is
on display at the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam.
It took ten minutes for Quảng Đức's body to burn (“human beings burn surprisingly quickly”, David Halberstam of the NYT wrote). Eventually, the body toppled backwards onto itself. Bystanders – monks, nuns, pedestrians, journalists – either wept or were shocked into silence. Once the fire subsided, several monks covered the smoldering corpse with robes and tried to place it into a coffin. However, the flames had warped Quảng Đức's limbs so severely that they could not be properly straightened, resulting in one of the limbs protruding from the wooden coffin. The corpse was brought to a pagoda in central Saigon, outside of which students held bilingual banners that read: “A Buddhist priest burns himself for our five requests.”
This picture pops up a lot when I try to
find out what really happened to Quang
Duc's heart. It might be his heart, but I
can't find any information about this part-
icular photo.

Now that's how you fucking do it. Reading about the details of the protest itself gives me chills. My blood curdles when I see this shit. Jeez, what a powerful vision, a living human being willingly burned to death in front of your eyes. And even more powerful, the protest worked better than anyone could have imagined. Quảng Đức was spiritually venerated by the Buddhist community, and today is worshiped as a bodhisattva for his compassion. Prior to his funeral, the police and the Buddhist community collaborated to limit the amount of grievers to approximately 500 monks, in order to keep things peaceful. Interestingly enough, Quảng Đức's body was cremated (again) during the funeral, yet his heart remained wholly untouched by the flames. Medically, this is not completely uncommon, as the heart is made of very tough tissues, and is protected during cremation by the ribcage and chest.Nonetheless, Quảng Đức's heart is considered a holy symbol of compassion. However, where it is now and whether it truly remained intact after Quảng Đức's cremation is kinda unknown. During a series of government-sponsored anti-Buddhist raids in August 1963, Vietnamese Special Forces attacked various pagodas. In the chaos, it's alleged that the secret police of Vietnam attempted to steal Quảng Đức's ashes and heart, but two monks thwarted their attempts by hiding in the US embassy. However, at some point the secret police did manage to confiscate the charred heart. Maybe one day if I visit Vietnam I will try to uncover the answers to this mystery myself. That would be an afternoon well-spent, I feel.

Aftermath -- Regime Collapse and the Werther Effect:

Anyway, Quảng Đức's sacrificial demonstration was incredibly effective. Diem's government responded as expected, stating they were troubled by the event and announced that they would immediately work to resume stalled negotiations with the Buddhists, but simultaneously blamed “extremists” for twisting the facts. He espoused a bunch of shit about Roman Catholic values, and would later come up with a handful of guilt-saving theories, such as how Quảng Đức was drugged and forced to kill himself, or that American journalists had bribed him to burn himself. The government's English mouthpiece Times of Vietnam spread additional anti-Buddhist libel. The First Lady of South Vietnam publicly stated that she gleefully looked forward to another “barbecue show”. The government even agreed to negotiate a Joint Communique with the Buddhist, which unsurprisingly failed. Despite his misplaced efforts, support for Diem's regime, both domestically and internationally, plummeted. Prominent army members signed a promise to support Diem no matter what, but were secretly planning to depose him a coup, a plan that was successful a few months later in November and that resulted in Diem and his brother/chief adviser Ngô Đình Nhu's assassination. Things would get progressively more chaotic from there as the country approached the Vietnam War.

The international community reacted to the incident with shock and awe. The photographs taken by Macolm Browne of the AP instantly became legendary. A journalist working for United Press International (UPI) fucked up and forgot to bring his camera to Quảng Đức's demonstration. As a result, it is estimated that 5,000 people in Sydney switched from reading UPI to their rival AP. When John F. Kennedy read the news story in his daily morning paper, he interrupted his phone call with his brother with an exclamatory “Jesus Christ!”. The US put immense pressure on Diem's government, which it had up until then supported as a buffer to the spread of communism. While this resulted in the aforementioned Joint Communique, there was virtually nothing Diem's regime could do to come out not looking like the bad guy which he very very much was. The image of Quảng Đức's burning body is so powerfully gripping that it was used by anti-capitalists-turned-capitalist guitar shredders/rapping white guys Rage Against the Machine on the cover for their super edgy, fuck-the-system-motherfucker single “Killing in the Name Of”, which I guess is about police brutality and racism, so I can't really shit on it too badly.

The  banned postage stamp of Norman Morrison.
More importantly, Quảng Đức began a new wave of political self-immolation; self-immolation for the modern political dissident, in a sense. Observe the United States in 1965: Detroit resident Alice Herz, an 82-year old German-Jewish expatriate, Holocaust survivor, and peace activist, sets fire to herself on March 26th in Detroit to protest the escalating Vietnam War, dying of her injuries ten days later; Norman Morrison, a Baltimore Quaker, husband and father of three children, sits below US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Office in DC on November 2nd, hands off his one-year old daughter to a person in the crowd, and sets himself aflame in protest of the Vietnam War, dying the same day; Roger Allen LaPorte, 22-year old former student and Catholic Worker Movement member, camps in front of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the UN on November 10th, and also burns himself alive in protest of the Vietnam War, dying the following day. Alice Herz eventually got a Peace Fund established in her name by a Japanese author, as well as a plaza named after her in Berlin. Norman Morrison has become commemorated as a folk hero of sorts in Vietnam (where he was called Mo Ri Xon), with revolutionary poets penning poems in his honor, and North Vietnam naming a street in Hanoi after him as well as a stamp (which was illegal to own in the US due to the trade embargo placed on North Vietnam). Robert McNamara was deeply troubled by the incident, and Morrison's wife eventually wrote a book about her husband and her visit to Vietnam with her family in 1999. Roger Allen LaPorte got shit as far as I can tell.

What all these self-immolaters had in common was not just a hatred of the Vietnam War, but they were all influenced by the self-immolation of Quảng Đức. A fourth incident occurred in 1970, where 23-year old George Winne, Jr., also protesting US involvement in the Vietnam War, lit himself on fire at the UC San Diego campus, and was dead by the next day. Which brings us back to the central question of this whole spiel, that is, why do people keep doing this shit? I guess a couple reasons. One is the Werther effect. Also known as a copycat suicide, it occurs when several people commit suicide in a fashion similar to a well-known or highly publicized suicide, emulating it. It takes its name from Goethe's 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist commits suicide after he is rejected by the woman he loves (Wikipedia spoiled the ending for me and now I'm spoiling it for you, you little shits). The book inspired a wave of similar suicides, and thus the term was coined. The phenomenon is well-observed, and often occurs after celebrity suicides, including Japanese singer Yukiko Okada, Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, and American actress cum sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. There's a decent amount of social research about this phenomenon, so if your interest is piqued, Google away.

Further, contrary to what I said way earlier, it turns out burning to death isn't as painful as I thought, apparently. While it's certainly not painless to be burned alive, oftentimes shock or asphyxiation from the smoke render the experience painless after a minute or so, maybe less (maybe more?). Additionally, there's generally a morbid curiosity around this sort of thing. People are genuinely curious about what's its like to burn yourself alive. Apparently, there was a non-political imitator of Quảng Đức, a young son of an American officer based in Saigon, who doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire à la the monk. He was eventually extinguished and left with serious burns. The only explanation he could offer was “I wanted to see what it was like”. I identify with this boy more than I would like to admit.

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