Saturday, March 11, 2006

Self Immolation in Taiwan, and the World

This image was originally posted at Geocities

This article was written in December for the January Issue of 24/7 Magazine. That issue turned out to be a calendar. The February Issue was postponed due in part to Lonny's tragic departure and in part to give the new guys a chance to find their feet. Feet found, there's even 24/7 online, now and Self Imolation; in Taiwan and around the World is in the March Issue, straight outta Taipei.


Sati is a famous character in Hindu mythology. She fell in love with the God, Shiva, and married him against her father’s wishes. Her father tried to get revenge by not inviting Shiva to a festival. Sati lit herself on fire to get back at her old man, and Shiva got back at him by ripping his head off and replacing it with a goat’s head. In the end Sati was reborn as the daughter of a mountain and continued to hang out with Shiva. Hindu mythology is both dramatic and romantic, and probably shouldn’t be read to children.

Immolation is destruction by fire. What Sati did is known as self-immolation. There are references to this act in early Hindu and Buddhist texts. I became interested in self-immolation after reading a short article in the Taipei Times a few weeks ago. A man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in front of the Presidential Palace. I remembered that it wasn’t the first time I had heard about someone doing this in Taiwan. It turns out that Taiwan has a scattered history of self immolation cases; here and abroad, it’s not as rare as one would hope.

I probably first learned about self-immolation when Rage Against the Machine released their first album. There on the cover was the famous picture of Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burning serenely in a busy Saigon intersection in 1963. He was protesting the religious intolerances against Buddhists, being committed by the American-installed Diem government. New York Times reporter, David Halberstam, who witnessed it, wrote, “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

The protest of Thich Quang Duc was followed by several more monks in Vietnam. In 1965 and 1970 activists in the United States followed suit, in protest of the war. The history of these acts takes us to Russian aggression in Poland in 1968 and Prague in 1969 and in Lithuania in 1972, to unfair labor conditions in Korea in the 70’s and government repression there in the 90’s.

In 1989, pro-Taiwan independence magazine publisher Cheng Nan-jung self immolated when the police stormed his offices. He had been isolated in his office for 71 days. His crime was publishing a draft of the Republic of Taiwan constitution. Another activist set himself alight at Cheng’s funeral procession.

In 2001 Nuclear power activist Huang Ting-fang self immolated in front of the parliamentary buildings in protest of the forth nuclear power plant. Pravda reported, later that year, another man had self immolated on his parents grave, based on the belief that the space station Mir was going to strike Tai Chung.

In 2003, a woman who suspected her husband of having an affair doused herself in turpentine and set herself alight in a Taipei suburb. The flames spread to a group of nearby scooters which exploded and ignited the apartment building. 13 people died and another 70 were injured. She apparently didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but herself.

Earlier this year, the Pakistan Tribune reported that self-immolation is becoming more commonplace in Afghanistan. This year in the western province of Herat alone, nearly a hundred have burned themselves to death, and another hundred have attempted it. They saw it as the only way of escaping an abusive marriage. Figures for the whole country are probably three times that. Figures in Japan, for just the prefecture of Akita, show 36 suspected cases in the last six years. It’s not just a protest anymore, it’s an escape from a cruel world.

One of the most famous recent cases is called the Tiananmen Square Self Immolation Incident. Five people, including a thirteen year old child, set themselves on fire in the square. The Chinese reported that the protesters were Falun Gung members but this has since been treated with skepticism.

After this latest instance in Taiwan, one article referred to it being the third case this year. Mr. Wang wasn’t protesting anything except the mess his life had become; gambling problems and mental illness, divorce and the loss of custody of his child. He just wanted someone to listen to him scream at the world. With the high and climbing suicide rates in Taiwan, and the national flare for the dramatic, we should be concerned that the ghost of Sati might find a permanent home here, like she has in Japan and Afghanistan, to name a few.


BigEll said...

Nice article, I had to re-read the part about the Mir Satellite and the Taichung man, sounds stranger thgan fiction.

Sean Reilly said...

Yeah, but you know how reliable the Russian news agencies are...

About as believable as the American ones, the Chinese ones, or the Eskimo ones.

The Eskimoes don't run any news agencies? Don't be so naive. Those blubber eating sons of bitches control more than you think.

In the words of Mike Yuill, "First you get the blubber, then you get the power..."