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Tunisian Riots Remind Us of the Power of Setting Yourself on Fire

How a young man in Tunisia ousted a dictator using one of the oldest, most painful protest methods in history.

Though the riots in Tunisia are getting lots of press now that the dictator Ben Ali has grown scared enough to flee the nation, they've actually been going on for weeks. You might also be surprised to know that they started when a 26-year-old man named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest the police taking away his unlicensed fruit cart. Unemployment is in the double digits in Tunisia, and everyone is looking for ways to make extra money. So when the authorities shut down his business on December 19, Bouazizi decided he'd had enough, and he employed a form of protest that's very old and, amazingly, used quite frequently.

Self-immolation, as it's called, has been a dramatic way to express umbrage in Asia for centuries, especially in the Buddhist and Hindu communities. Though Buddhists technically have rigid rules against self-harm, burning oneself to death has been given a pass, as practitioners have decided that it "signifies something deeper than merely the legal concept of suicide or the physical action of self-destruction." India's Charans would burn themselves in the belief that doing so could call down spiritual vengeance on those who'd wronged them. While the jauhar tradition orders Rajput women to throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres.

Self-immolation gained a sort of notoriety during the Vietnam War, when the international press covered the suicide of the monk Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself in Saigon to protest the shabby treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Writing for The New York Times, David Halberstam said, "I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think. ... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." After Duc's death, five Americans—the youngest being 22; the oldest being 82—burned themselves to protest Vietnam.

Even as recently as the past decade, there have been a dozen notable cases of self-immolation, the last of which was Bouazizi, who died 18 days after setting himself alight in front of a Tunisian government building. He'll never know he changed the world.

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