Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi's desperate act of self-immolation triggered a shame in many Arabs that they hadn't done enough for their dignity and freedom, igniting protests for democracy. Under what conditions have such 'founding deaths' worked in other societies?
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 – sparking protests that brought regime change in Tunisia and massive unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world – he was unwittingly following an established pattern.
In an oppressive environment, a solitary act of highly visible self-immolation triggers a massive chain-reaction, which results in some major political changes.
Thích Quàng Đúc, a Buddhist monk, did it in Vietnam in June 1963, protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by the Ngô Đình Diem administration; and so did Jan Palach, a 21-year old philosophy student, in January 1969, when he set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. The former’s gesture led to the toppling of Diem’s regime within months; the latter’s was sufficiently powerful to fuel the political imagination of the Czechoslovakian anti-communist resistance over the next two decades.
How is it possible that a single act, one individual’s suicide, can lead to political transformations on such a large scale? There is certainly no easy recipe. In fact, several factors have to conspire, in some unique fashion, to generate such an outcome. Sheer imitators hardly achieve anything precisely because they fail to see that the self-immolator himself plays only a small part within a much larger story.