JAKARTA, Indonesia — When news broke here in early December that a young Indonesian student had doused himself in gasoline, lit a match and ran flaming toward the presidential palace, Indonesians reacted with shock and confusion.
An outpouring of supporters set up vigil at the hospital where he clung to life, as speculation swirled about why the man had set himself alight.
Those who knew him say he actively participated in rallies and demonstrations against the government, and they believe his act was one of protest. If so, his would be the first self-immolation in Indonesia, a country where protesters are more often polite and peaceful than rambunctious, even in large numbers.
On Dec. 10 the student, Sondang Hutagalung, died from extensive burn wounds, seemingly the latest victim of an extreme form of protest that has captivated the world in 2011.
The spark began with Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated last December after police confiscated his wares and humiliated him in public. The 26-year-old’s act helped launch the Arab Spring, a liberation movement that soon spread across North Africa.
Within months a series of self-immolations occurred in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and Mauritania — all places without any tradition of death by fire.
So pervasive were demonstrations — against despots, corporate greed and heavy-handed governance — that TIME magazine named 2011 the year of the protester.
Yet seldom has self-immolation featured so prominently as a political form of protest. Perhaps most notably this year, a dozen Tibetan nuns and monks have self-immolated in protest of China’s grip on their homeland.
Loosely tied to the ancient Indian practice of sati, where a widow would set herself alight on her husband’s funeral pyre, self-immolation as a modern form of dissent rose to prominence most famously in June1963, when Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in the middle of a street in Saigon.
His act was an attempt to draw attention to the brutal discrimination Buddhists faced under the rule of president Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled what was then South Vietnam.
Four more monks and a nun self-immolated before Diem’s assassination during a coup in November 1963. The act then became a form of protest against the Vietnam War. In March 1965 a Quaker woman, Alice Hertz, set herself on fire, sparking a series of self-inflicted burnings in the United States — unlike Quang Duc’s self-immolation, however, those subsequent acts received less media attention.
Later self-immolations changed the association the act had with religion. In 1969, a group of Czechoslovaks self-immolated to protest the Soviet invasion. Four decades later outlawed Falun Gong practitioners did it in Tiananmen Square.
Amid the growth of this disturbing trend, some social scientists have tried to determine what leads individuals to such extreme measures, whether it be self-sacrifice, martyrdom or agitprop. Robbie Barnett, director of the Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, says in repressive states it may simply be an act of last resort.
“If you run a state where you disallow any form of political expression or protest you eventually will produce this kind of response,” he said, noting that self-immolation may be a form of protest Tibetans have decided upon after having had little effect with other forms of dissent, particularly since it communicates their religious and cultural identity in a way that does not antagonize the Chinese.
A dozen Tibetan Buddhists have self-immolated since March 2011 to protest Chinese rule over their homeland. But Barnett says this act of protest is very particular.
“People think they can immolate anywhere, but it doesn’t work that way,” he explained. “We care about certain ones, done by certain people in very desperate situations. There are roughly 900 to 1,500 self-immolations as political protest done in India each year but we never hear about them.”
When the right circumstances collide, self-immolation can be a powerful political tool, say analysts.
Authoritarian conditions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, for instance, made those countries ripe for “an explosion,” said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC-based think-tank.
By itself, however, “self-immolation is only effective if it leads to collective action,” she said, noting that the self-immolations by the Buddhist monks in Vietnam did not produce a mass uprising against that autocratic government.
They did have an extraordinary impact on global protest movements, sparking what sociologists refer to as a copycat effect. But Barnett says today’s self-immolations seems to be of a barometer of extreme repression in a particular place rather than a copycat phenomenon.
“These forms of protest are not replicable,” he said. In Tibet’s case, the self-immolations result from a particular combination of Buddhist tradition, which sees them as an act of selflessness, and a political position that wants to make a statement without harming other people.
In North Africa Ottaway says the self-immolations show that protesters are not afraid to die, which also explains why the trend peaked there and then quickly quieted down.
“I don’t see the spread of a culture of self-immolation, I see a culture of being willing to fight and run tremendous risks in order to achieve what you want, but it’s very different from self-immolation,” she said.
That the right conditions manifested in 2011 for self-immolation to occur in places with very different cultural and political conditions is unique, say analysts. And they may make for a short-lived trend.
Already the impact of Sondang Hutagalung’s apparent self-immolation in Indonesia has sputtered — confined to a few Facebook groups and student supporters.
Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University says that is because a middle-class student without a real grievance carried it out. And that, he said, does not make a “compelling narrative.”