(NEW YORK) MintPress – Desperate times call for desperate measures, according to the old saying, and these are increasingly difficult times for everyone — from Europeans facing a financial crisis to those in the Middle East seeking political stability and equality to people under Chinese rule fighting for improved human rights.
In England on Friday, another tragedy. A 48-year-old man set himself on fire outside a jobs center in the southwest city of Birmingham after an apparent quarrel over his benefit payments.
“The guy came into the job center with petrol and made threats. He tied himself to the railings and tore open the bottom of his trousers. You could smell the fumes from the liquid he used, but the police arrived by the time he had set himself alight and they managed to put him out quite quickly,” said one witness. “He would have to have been very desperate to have done something like that.”
The incident follows an attempted suicide in a Liverpool benefits office earlier this year, which, according to authorities, was “said to be the result of receiving a letter” informing him that his sickness benefit would be cut off.
Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), recently issued new guidelines to staff on how to deal with threats of self-harm and suicides as a result of further squeezes on benefits that “some of our more vulnerable customers may take some time to accept and adjust to.”
Self-immolation — setting oneself on fire — has centuries-long traditions in some cultures while it has become a type of radical political protest in more modern times.
That led to several copycat suicides: Researchers counted almost 100 self-immolations covered by The New York Times and The Times between 1963 and 1971, most of them suicides in the U.S. protesting the Vietnam War.
More recently, as of last week, there have been some 41 reported self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule since February 27, 2009, when a young monk from set himself on fire in the marketplace in Ngawa City in Sichuan Province.
Last but certainly not least, a wave of self-immolation protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa in conjunction with the Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
Tunisia as trigger
On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his goods and the harassment he had reported at the hands of a municipal official and her aides.
He died the following January 4, but his act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution, inciting demonstrations and riots throughout the country in protest of social and political inequities. The public anger then led President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down on January 14, 2011, after nearly a quarter of a century in power.
In the six months immediately after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death, at least 107 Tunisians set themselves on fire.
The success of the Tunisian protests also inspired people in several other countries in the region to emulate Bouazizi’s act in an attempt to bring down their own autocratic leaders, leading to the Arab Spring.
In 2011, Bouazizi was posthumously awarded the Sakharov Prize, along with four others, for his contribution to “historic changes in the Arab world.” The Tunisian government honored him with a postage stamp.
Closer to home, The Times of London named him as person of the year 2011, while Time magazine awarded that accolade to “The Protester.”