Self-immolation isn’t what it used to be.
This ultimate form of protest became global news in 1963 when the venerable monk Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in the middle of Saigon, Vietnam, protesting religious oppression. Doused in gasoline, the monk sat serenely in lotus position and lit a match. A bird of paradise thus blossomed and bloomed, and quickly charred his body.
The photographer Malcolm Browne captured Thich Quang Duc’s fiery renouncement of the mortal coil, the image quickly becoming an icon of the Vietnam War era. The term “self-immolation,” in fact, entered into common English usage after his death, which led to a coup d’etat that toppled the pro-Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
Half a century later, to die by fire in protest registers little more than a media blip.
As of this writing, 117 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze since 2009 in a series of protests against Chinese rule. The most recent incidents came in April, when two young Tibetan monks and a lay Tibetan woman set themselves on fire. There was little coverage of their deaths.