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Aaron Bushnell Protest: What is self-immolation? What you ought to know about this political protest

Aaron Bushnell, a US Air Force member, burned himself to death in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington to condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza. His self-immolation made many of these fish-n-chips generations wonder what drove the poor chap to such a desperate act. Was it the horror of war?

In 1964, a Buddhist monk immolating himself on the road of Saigon, Vietnam.(AP/Wikimedia Commons)

Bushnell, 25, from San Antonio, Texas, succumbed to his burns, according to the Washington, DC, police on Monday. Bushnell had broadcasted his self-immolation on Twitch, while wearing his uniform and saying he would not participate in “genocide” on Sunday.

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This leads to various threads, but leading to one, what is self-immolation? The historical quiver it carries in today’s political scenario.

Self-immolation: A gritty language to convey in political aspect

India: A former commerce student of Deshbandhu College, Delhi University, Rajiv Goswami, became the news headline for his self-immolation attempt on 19 September 1990. He was protesting against the Mandal Commission’s job quota policy for backward castes in India, which was implemented by Prime Minister V. P. Singh.

Also, in the 1960s, some Indians burned themselves to oppose the imposition of Hindi as a national language.

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Thich Quang Duc: A Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in 1963 in Saigon, Vietnam, to denounce the oppression of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime. His act was captured in a famous photograph that shocked the world and influenced the course of the Vietnam War. He was not the only monk to do so, as several others followed his example. It was a sign of honour for Buddhist monks like Japanese samurais, who preferred to die in a battle rather than in a bed.

Tibet: In 2009, a Tibetan monk ignited himself to denounce the Chinese occupation of Tibet, triggering a wave of protests. Since then, at least 145 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest against the Chinese occupation and repression of their homeland. Most of them have died, and many of them were monks or nuns. They have called for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile, and the preservation of their culture and religion. While eyeing 2025, Tibetans are still setting them on fire around the fire, while most of its news will not crawl through your feed.

Arab Spring activists: In 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being harassed by the police and having his goods confiscated. His death sparked a wave of protests across the Arab world, leading to the overthrow of several authoritarian regimes. Other protesters in countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco also resorted to self-immolation to express their grievances and demands.

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History of self-immolation in US

One of the most iconic and disturbing images of the Vietnam War was that of Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in Saigon.

“The average American would have said, ‘Well, we’re supporting democracy, and fighting against communism,’ and this image of this monk choosing this terrible way to die to protest against the American government, was really shocking,” says Michael Biggs, associate professor of sociology at Oxford University. He was not the only one who resorted to this extreme form of protest.

During the same war, some Americans also self-immolated, such as Norman Morrison, a Quaker who set himself ablaze outside the Pentagon while holding his child.

In recent times, the climate crisis has driven some activists to sacrifice their lives in this way. In 2018, David Buckel, a former American lawyer, self-immolated in a park in Brooklyn. In 2022, Wynn Alan Bruce, a climate activist, did the same in front of the Supreme Court.

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