• History

13 People Who Literally Set Themselves On Fire In Protest

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. 

  • Thich Quang Duc

    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 South 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 was deemed a bodhisattva. 

  • Tunisian street vendor Mohamed 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 undertaken without any broader political inspiration.

    Bouazizi succumbed to his wounds a year later, but his actions helped galvanize the people of Tunisia and create widespread protests that sparked the Arab Spring, which toppled the government. 

  • 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. He wrote his own obituary as he had no close friends or family. 

  • 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. He perished of his burns on the way to the hospital.