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13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest

Updated April 24, 2020 35.4k views13 items

People have found many dramatic ways to protest throughout history, but one of the most extreme is definitely by self-immolation, or setting oneself 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 insignificant as tax disputes. While some of these deaths shook nations to their core, all were tragic. 

Suicide by burning is not always chosen for political reasons. Sometimes it is a 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 one another. 

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 who 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. 

  • Murugathasan Varnakulasingham

    Video: YouTube

    In 2009, 26-year-old grocery store worker Murugathasan Varnakulasingham set himself on fire outside of the United Nations complex in Geneva, Switzerland. He doused himself in gasoline, set himself on fire, and burned to death before police could intervene.

    Near his remains, they found a letter typed in Tamil criticizing the international community's neglect of the Tamil people's oppression under the Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka during a civil war that raged for over 30 years. He was one of seven Tamils who set themselves on fire in protest. 

  • The Soshigateli

    Beginning in the 17th century, a sect of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia called "Old Believers" resisted government-sponsored church reforms and modernization efforts. Radical members of the group known as the soshigateli ("self-burners") protested persecution by participating in ritual acts of mass self-immolation.

    The soshigateli believed that fire was the only way to purify themselves of Earthly sin (they called it a "fire baptism"). They would gather in groups of anywhere from 15 to 2,500 and burn themselves in giant pits or houses filled with kindling. Between the 1660s and the 1870s, tens of thousands were reported to have voluntarily burned to death

  • Nhat Chi Mai

    On May 16, 1976, Buddhist nun Nhat Chi Mai burned herself to death in the courtyard of a nunnery in Saigon to protest the Vietnam War. Her wish was for people of all faiths, religions, and philosophies to band together in order create a more peaceful world. Before she perished, she placed statues of both the Virgin Mary and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in front of her.

    Nhat Chi Mai hoped that her self-immolation would inspire Catholics and Buddhists to work together in harmony. 

  • Photo: Roger Veringmeier / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    In 1969, 21-year-old student Jan Palach perished from self-immolation in Prague. He left a letter stating that this was the last form of protest left, as Czechs and Slovaks had reached the point of no return and the Soviet occupation had barred people from all other forms of protest. 

    Palach became a martyr for the anti-Soviet movement in Czechoslovakia.