13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest  

Isadora Teich
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People have found many dramatic ways to protest throughout history, but one of the most extreme is definitely by self-immolation, or setting yourself on fire. People have used this technique out of desperation to protest events as large and terrifying as wars and occupation, and as personal and seemingly small as tax disputes. While some of these deaths shook nations to their core, all were tragic, and some were bizarre. 

Suicide by burning is not always chosen for political reasons. Sometimes it is a horrifying spiritual undertaking, or a last-ditch effort on the part of a desperate soul to draw attention to something important which they feel will not get the attention it deserves in any other way. Many believe that this profound and terrible act was even used by the Chinese government to turn their populace against each other. 

From the burning monk to the pious self-burners of old world Russia to the Swedish actor who was angry about the way his taxes were handled to the self-immolator that accidentally sparked the Arab Spring, people turn to self-immolation for a number of reasons. Read on to find out why a surprising number of people throughout history have chosen to die by fire. 

Thich Quang Duc
Thich Quang Duc is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest
Photo: Malcolm Browne/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On June 11, 1963, 67-year-old Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc did the unthinkable. He sat in the lotus position at a busy intersection in Saigon, poured gasoline all over himself, lit a match, and burned to death for all to see. His act of self-immolation was a protest meant to draw attention to the Vietnamese government's persecution of Buddhists, and it was hugely successful. His heart, which survived his immolation unburned, has become a holy relic and the man himself deemed a Bodhisattva. 

Mohamed Bouazizi is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest
Photo:  Chris Belsten/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Tunisian street vendor Mouhamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside of the country's main government building in 2010, after his cart and goods were taken by local police and filing an appeal failed. As his livelihood was taken away, it was a desperate measure seemingly taken without any broader political inspiration. Bouazizi died of his wounds a year later, but his actions helped to galvanize the people of Tunisia and create widespread protests which sparked the Arab Spring that toppled the government. 

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In 2003, jazz musician and activist Malachi Ritscher rose to fame for his act of self-immolation to protest the invasion of Iraq. He burned himself to death during rush hour on a busy Chicago street.  Ritscher was an avid anti-war protestor and supporter of the Chicago jazz scene with an estranged son, who wrote his own obituary as he had no close friends. 

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Per-Axel Arosenius is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest
Photo:  Topaz/Universal Pictures

Swedish actor Per-Axel Arosenius played mostly supporting parts over his career; his most notable role was a supporting one in the Hitchcock thriller Topaz. In 1981, at 60 years old, Arosenius had a dispute with the the Swedish taxation authority and set himself on fire outside of their offices in protest. The man died of his burns on the way to the hospital. 

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