Dispatch: Self-Immolation as a Political Tool

4 MINS READJan 18, 2011 | 20:33 GMT
VP of Strategic Intelligence Rodger Baker examines the tactic of self-immolation as a way to galvanize protest movements. Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. There have been several cases of self-immolation in North Africa in the past several days. This seems to stem back to the mid-December self-immolation case in Tunisia that triggered a series of events that ultimately appears to have led to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. Self-immolation can be a very powerful political tool. It evokes a sense of horror in those who see it but also it's a method of public death that doesn't harm others in the same way that suicide bombings or attacks of that sort do. Therefore it can draw very different focus, onto what ultimately are the underlying causes, and what the issue is that the individual is protesting against. In Tunisia, there was certainly an economic underpinning to this and a dissatisfaction with the way in which the government ran the economy. For self-immolation to really stir up a movement or to stir action, it requires that there is already that tension, there is already a sense of action just underneath the surface and it's really looking for something to trigger that off — whether it be self-immolation, whether it be a particularly profound political speech, an attack upon a government office or some other act. Self-immolation, though, does have the sense of martyrdom to it. It has the sense of taking upon yourself great pain for others or for the cause that you are ultimate dying for. We've seen the tactic used quite a bit in places like South Asia, in places like East Asia. Some of the most notable example that people are aware of include in Vietnam, where Buddhist monks burned themselves. In South Korea, the labor movement had a lot of its early start on a case of self-immolation that helped to inspire different organizations to pull together and really build up what became a very powerful labor movement. To many people, then, self-immolation is connected more closely to East Asian religions, to Buddhism, but that's not really the case. Historically we've seen it carried out as a nonreligious political tool in Eastern Europe, and by individuals around the world. What we're seeing in North Africa now is political self-immolation, it's not religious self-immolation and it's very unusual in this region. We do see them in Afghanistan and Pakistan in regard to women's rights and family rights. We've seen in South Asia and India in dealing with the caste system or other political elements. But in the Middle East, this is a new tactic and that may have contributed to how much power this case at this time. When a government looks at a case of self-immolation it's actually a very difficult thing for them deal with. This is not an individual who's going out and hurting other people, they're not blowing up buildings and attacking government buildings and therefore it's very difficult for the government to condemn the individual if all they do is kill themselves, and if they do it in a very public way that has political undertones, that allows their message spread in a way the government can't really control and can't really get a grasp on. As this spreads through North Africa, we're already seeing governments take action both to try to prevent or preempt self-immolation but also to address some of the issues that are stirring unrest within these countries.

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