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The Enigma of Burning Yourself Alive

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by Bramantyo Indirawan

In Ben Arous, Tunisia, Tarek-el Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi stood in front of the local governor’s office after a policewoman confiscated his fruit cart and also gave him a beating. What came next was a phenomenon that startled the world; igniting revolution and the will of social change.

Bouazizi covered himself in fuel and lit a match, burned himself alive on December 17, 2010. The 26 year old was one of the street vendors that had to pay 3 dinars of extortion everyday to sell his goods; a “lucky” one compared to many who are jobless. On the  day he committed suicide, Bouazizi could not bribe the authorities that then led to a conflict that costed him his earning. On January 4, 2011, the Sidi Bouzid born man finally died in Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Centre —  18 days after his suicide attempt.

Desperation came after the authority rejected the demand in getting his belongings back. With much dismay, the effect was powerful. The self immolation of Bouazizi triggered revolution that eventually created the Arab Spring in the Middle East. It all started in Tunisia when the 23 year rule of President Zile El Abidine Ben Ali finally ended after massive protests and even violent riots. When the unrest broke out government responded with stick and carrot approach, ranging from repression, arrests, internet shutdown to massive job offers.

It was too late, and the Tunisian Revolution went out on a full scale when protests and violence continued. On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia — marked the assurance of the government overthrow. Such revolution generated the domino effect of uprisings across the region, started from Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Morocco to Mauritania.

It was inconceivable that the Arab Spring was precipitated by a street vendor who burned himself alive. Suicide has its reasons;  from illness, philosophical choice, to an atonement of honor like what I have mentioned before in Sword to the Stomach: Seppuku and the Case of Altruistic Suicide.

Self immolation can’t be pinned down to one reason, because it differs from one persons motive to another. While seppuku came from a long line of history and culture, the act of burning yourself alive doesn’t have any established rule. So what are the causes that made a person willingly burn himself or herself to death?

Ablaze in Cause & Effect

Written in a grey marble grave, the green Arabic scripture can be translated to ‘Martyr Mohamed Bouazizi. Peace in his life. And in the next life, have peace as well.’

Truth be told, the martyr didn’t even know what his action would bring to Tunisia and beyond. When setting himself ablaze; Bouazizi was in desperation. What we can found out in stories, interviews, or eyewitness testimony leads to one particular reason that is economy.

As a backbone who provides for his big family, Bouazizi’s frustration can be seen as an exit or a bold protest that goes to the point of no return. It is safe to say that the simple fruit seller burned himself without an agenda to overthrow the government. The economic reason of a man who kills himself triggers the climax for the nation’s social inequality, a catalyst of revolution with no political intention whatsoever — an accidental martyr.

There are cases where people willingly lit themselves on fire to make a political statement. A perfect example would be Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who burned himself alive in the intersection of Saigon, Vietnam. The year was 1963 when Quảng Đức gave his protest against the persecution of Buddhist by the Catholic Diem regime in 1963. The self immolation was later immortalized by a powerful photo of the burning monk who sits peacefully.

Self-immolation with social and political reasoning happens throughout the modern age. After Quảng Đức thought provoking protest, there are those who imitate his way to deliver a political message. Norman Morisson from Pennsylvania, U. S., burned himself in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War and Jan Palach from Prague, Czezhcoslovakia set himself ablaze in 1968 to protest the invasion of Soviet Union.

What made Bouazizi different is his motives. Although he represented the Tunisian people, and did not plan anything, the fruit seller changed the social political climate indirectly. The other self-immolating individuals mentioned above had political motives right from the start, thus separating Bouazizi’s act from political “sacrifice”.

To some extent, Bouazizi act of self-immolation can be explained by Emile Durkheim theory of suicide. There are four causes of suicide in the sociologist viewpoint; egoistic that comes from a lack of belonging within a community, altruistic that happens because of highly socialized individuals and value the needs of community, anomic that lacks the regulation of individual in society, and fatalistic that position individuals in excessive moral regulation by society.

With these definitions, we can conclude that the cause of self-immolation can relate to altruistic and fatalistic suicide. In Bouazizi case, fatalistic describes it well. This type of suicide happens because of oppression, placing the policewoman and Tunisian government as the oppressor. Excessive regulation leads to a choice that ends in flames for the simple man.

Some self-immolation cases can be altruistic if they are fully aware of what they do carry a good cause they truly believe in that also happens to be the concern of society; a social or political role that eventually benefit others.

The aforementioned three self-immolation event in the sixties can be concluded as altruistic suicide since the three men took a conscious decision that will cost his own life in the name of other people well being.

What Durkheim didn’t explain is the aftermath of a suicide. Although Bouazizi’s reason behind his fatalistic suicide was a way to escape, what happens after he died was arguably the effect of an altruistic suicide. An accidental sacrifice that  connects with the people through representation of frustration  — a combination of both when the oppressed shared the same fate and connects in the altruistic ideals.

A Self Inflicting Violence

Tunisia has a majority of Muslim population that reach 99 percent including Mohamed Bouazizi, a man with a name taken from the prophet Muhammad. Although suicide  is condemned in Islam, his act did not harm anyone in the process.

He visually stunned people with violence at its worst, causing hysteria and provoking minds without physically hurting others. In contrast, there are people or groups who justify suicide bombing in the name of religion, hurting and killing people. According to Chicago Project on Security & Threats, there are about 5,430 suicide bombing attacks that kill 55,022 people since 1982 to 2016.

In the Islamic viewpoint, self-immolation and suicide attack are a fallacy that goes against the core values of religion. Cheating death is a sin and both phenomenon started with a will to kill themselves. But when we look to the external world, it differs significantly. One limits the agonizing death to his or herself and the other takes along casualties — terrorizing and inflicting fear.

Self-immolation can be complex, it’s a self inflicting violent suicide that has multiple purpose depending on the one who execute it. If we dissect the word origin, “immolation” originally meant sacrifice. Later on, the definition added the role of fire. In Merriam-Webster dictionary, self-immolation is defined as a deliberate and willing sacrifice of oneself often by fire.

The “sacrifice” that burns violent flames gets passed on from generation to generation with its own purpose. From Hindu customs such as sati that made widows burn themselves in her husband funeral pyre, Russian orthodox known as Soshigateli that enact “fire baptism”, monks that protest by self-immolation, to Bouazizi that lit a fire in desperation.

Bouazizi self-immolation is a reenactment of past practices like Quảng Đức did in the sixties that spark other protests, and a 49 year old restaurant owner Abdel-Moneim Jaafar who burned himself before the Egyptian Parliament in January 28, 2011 that led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.  A second coming spreads from the Middle East that include the same act by Mohsen Bouterfif, Maamir Lotfi, and Abdelhafid Boudechicha in Tunisia. Sadly enough, however, the following events do not have the powerful effect as the “first” ones, in fact, most ended up as the anti-climax.

There are still voices unheard. In Indonesia, Sondang Hutagalung committed suicide by self-immolation as a protest to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government. The 22 year old law school student was reportedly disappointed by the human rights violation and wanted a change.

On 7 December, 2011 Sondang burned himself in front of the Presidential Palace and died three days after. Unlike Tunisia, Indonesia stayed the same without significant change. When burning yourself won’t change anything, what does it take to be heard?


Source: Tom Chesshyre, A Tourist in the Arab Spring (2013), Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide (1897), On,,,,,,,,

Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer

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