The Spark Behind The Arab Spring 24 February 2013

Mohammed Bouazizi FuneralOn December 17th 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi ignited not only his body but also a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests across the Arab World, which would see many leaders thrust from power.  As a result, leading powers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been overthrown, whilst uprisings in Syria, Yemen and yet more countries, have broken out.  These strikes and marches have been referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’ and they strive beneath their slogan of ‘The people want to bring down the regime’.

Mohamed Bouazizi and thousands of other Arabs for years had lived under corrupt dictatorships and absolute monarchies, which often severely violated human rights, saw great economic decline, a rise in unemployment, extreme poverty and poor living standards.  The people of such countries suffered, and the actions of Bouazizi acted as a catalyst for what was to come.

In reaction to the general frustration and fight for survival, when Bouazizi’s unlicensed fruit and vegetable cart was confiscated by a municipal inspector on December 17th, and Bouazizi himself was then humiliated, spat on and his family insulted, he decided that enough was enough and decided upon extreme action.  Consequently, after being refused to be seen by the local municipal officers at the provincial headquarters in order to lodge a complaint, Bouazizi doused himself in petrol in front of the grand building and set himself alight.  Though he survived, he passed away on January 4th 2011, and within ten days of his death, Ben Ali and his 23 year reign over Tunisia finally ended due to the outrage Bouazizi’s act caused.  Thus the Arab Spring sprung from the ashes of Bouazizi’s self-immolation.

Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation as a form of protest against rulers and their treatment of their people is not an isolated event.  In fact, the use of self-immolation has been used by a number of groups to highlight the terrible reality of their position, when no other act was possible, and when they wished to draw the necessary attention to the situation.  Arguably, the group most affiliated with self-immolation and who have used it to greatest effect and success, are the Buddhists.

The act of self-immolation within Buddhism dates back to Buddhist scripture, and in particular, the story contained within the Lotus Sutra, a vital book within the Mahayana tradition, which details Bodhisattva Sarvarūpasaṃdarśana setting himself aflame (although in this case, the act of self-immolation was performed as the greatest gift he believed he could give to the Buddha, rather than as an act of protest).  Some of the earliest records of self-immolation occurring within Buddhism are noted in the Continued Biography of Eminent Monks by Daoxuan in the seventh century CE.  Within these records, Daoxuan links the act of self-immolation to the protection of the Buddhist religion against the powers of heads of state.  Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou territory in China, within this period, persecuted Buddhists and even banned the practice of the religion.  Naturally there was an outcry by Buddhists, in particular within the monastic community and numerous monks are recorded reacting to such unjust treatment.  Subsequently, many monks took to dramatic acts to protest against such unfair actions and such acts included self-immolation.

The most notable acts of self-immolation within Buddhism have occurred within the last century and Bouazizi’s act replicates similar circumstances that prompted numerous Buddhist monastics to set their bodies ablaze.  On June 11th 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Mahayana Vietnamese monk, burned himself to death at a busy road intersection in downtown Saigon.  News of the event spread rapidly and that same day a photograph of Thich Quang Duc burning alive appeared on President Kennedy’s desk, alerting the world to the repressive policies and nature of the ruling Catholic Diệm Regime that governed Vietnam at the time. As a result President Diệm came under increasing pressure to alter his policies and make reforms.  However, despite reforms being announced, none were implemented and protests spread.  Although initially in response to such protests, those loyal to the regime took violent and often successful actions against the Vietnamese people, on November 2nd 1963, President Diệm was assassinated and the regime was overthrown.  Much like the case of the Arab Spring, the initial sparks of successful protest and ultimate triumph over repressive leadership came from the self-immolation of a selfless individual.

The most recent cases of notable self-immolation have occurred this year and have taken place in Tibet.  In total, thirty-five people have, up to now, committed the act of self-immolation in reaction against Chinese rule.  A number of Buddhist monks have involved themselves in this extreme form of protest, and indeed, the monastic community initiated such action in Tibet.  Several of these monks, prior to their self-immolation, created and distributed leaflets, detailing the purpose of their proposed actions, including that they acted ‘not for personal glory, but for Tibet and the happiness of Tibetans’.  Their ultimate purpose was to draw international attention to the unhappiness and unjust suffering of the Tibetans caused by the Chinese, and it can be stated that many more people across the globe are aware of the Tibetan situation as a result.

The connection between the self-immolations of Mohamed Bouazizi and those of Buddhists, in particular those occurring in the last fifty or so years, are clear.  Firstly, such acts have often sparked a series of events that have ultimately led to the revitalisation of a suffering people and the overthrowing of an oppressive and often dictatorial regime – it is certainly possible to argue that the situation with Tibet and China will take a similar path.  Secondly, it demonstrates that in extreme situations, extreme actions are required; a simple march is not enough; a shocking, yet in many ways peaceful act is needed to draw necessary attention to the given situation and inspire and motivate others to take suitable action.  Thirdly, it illustrates the amount of pressure on a government, ruler or monarch that can come from such an act as self-immolation, especially when all eyes around the world focus in on that regime.  The act of self-immolation therefore has the potential to not only set ablaze the body of those who chose to burn themselves, but also to ignite political change.

About Ruth Cornelius

Ruth Cornelius recently graduated with a degree in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol, with a particular focus on Buddhism – its material culture, role in politics, leadership and key historical leaders.

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