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Journal of Religion and Violence

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published on August 28, 2015

Jack Lee Downey
DOI: 10.5840/jrv201582716

Dying They Live
Suicide Protesting and Martyrdom

This paper will investigate the contemporary phenomenon of Tibetan autocremations, considering them as responses to Chinese colonization, in the larger contexts of self-mortification and political protest. The Tibetan self-immolations have been chronically underreported in the international media, but have elicited charged internal conversations within the Tibetan and allied communities. As a modern protest tactic, autocremation originated with the Saigon immolation of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Ðức in 1963. As then, the current cycle of Tibetan self-immolations inaugurated some debate about the nature of these acts, and how they are to be interpreted as agentive manifestations of “communicative suffering”—whether these are suicides, patriotic sacrifices, religious offerings, or something altogether different. This renders the Tibetan pawos (Tib. heroes, martyrs) themselves as sites of conflict—conflict over their “message,” who is ultimately responsible, and what can or should be done. This essay uses the theoretical insights of Giorgio Agamben, Banu Bargu, and Michael Biggs to think through self-immolation protests within a mystical-political framework that constructs these acts as martyrdoms.

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