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13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest

Updated September 23, 2021 35.5k 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. 

  • Group Self-Immolation In Tiananmen Square

    Photo: ClearWisdom / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    On the eve of the Chinese New Year in 2001, a group of five self-immolated in Tiananmen Square. Due to interference from the Chinese government, no one is really sure who most of the people were, or what their goals might have been. One of the group of five perished.

    One theory is that this was a massive propaganda stunt on the part of the Chinese government to demonize the Falun Gong, a religious minority within China whose practice the government is trying to destroy. Since the incident, Falun Gong practitioners have been targeted, abused, arrested, tortured, killed, and reportedly even had their organs forcefully harvested on an alarming scale.   

  • Photo: Frank Wolfe / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1965, 31-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison carried his infant child to the Pentagon, handed her to a bystander, doused himself in kerosene, and set himself on fire beneath the office window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Morrison left behind a wife and three children.

    As one of the most famous Vietnam War protesters, he became an antiwar folk hero. There is a street named after him in North Vietnam and a Vietnamese stamp was made in his honor, which the US declared illegal to possess. 

  • Kim Jae-gi

    In February 2015, South Korean Kumho Tires employee Kim Jae-gi set himself on fire on top of one of his company's factories to protest company-wide changes that would negatively effect employees.

    In 2010, Kumho Tires began making moves to strip the majority of its fulltime employees of their status and make them contract workers, a position that offers no job security or benefits. Kim left behind a letter explaining that while he knew his passing would not change the world of labor as a whole, he hoped it would influence Kumho Tires. 

  • Photo: Vilensija / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Romas Kalanta was a 19-year-old who self-immolated in a public square in Soviet-controlled Lithuania on May 14, 1972. His self-sacrifice in protest of Soviet occupation is world-famous, and inspired a number of similar acts.

    The Lithuanian government instituted Civil Resistance Day to commemorate his passing, which had widespread social and political consequences within Lithuania.