Self-immolation in Bulgaria isn't as new as you might think

For the fourth time in one month, a Bulgarian citizen has self-immolated in an apparent protest against economic hardship and political corruption. The BBC reports:

The man, 52, threw petrol over himself outside the presidential palace in Sofia, police said. Security guards extinguished the flames and he was taken to hospital with severe burns where an official said his life was in danger.

As austerity measures make life increasingly difficult in the beleaguered country, the extreme response from Bulgarians has left the country's leaders reeling, prompting the resignation of a mayor in the city of Varna and, before that, the fall of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov's center-right government.

As an act of political resistance, suicide protest is largely associated with Tibetan monks and Dalit women in India. But while the current outbreak of self-immolations in Bulgaria is shocking, it's not exactly surprising. The country has a history of grievance driven self-immolation -- more than many European countries.

According to a literature review of deliberate self-burning (DSB) over a 20-year period, conducted by Medecins Sans Frontiers in 2003, Bulgaria had an average of 7.4 cases per year (between 1983-2002) and a total number of cases that was only surpassed among European countries studied by the Netherlands. The report, which draws a distinction between psychiatric illness and political motivation as a causal factor, notes that Bulgaria had the lowest correlation to mental illness among European countries studied, with only a third of immolations stemming from clinical psychiatric disorders.

Eastern Europe more generally has a history of self-immolation as a form of political resistance, largely in opposition to Soviet rule. In 2011, Foreign Policy's Christian Caryl discussed the most famous case, when the Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in 1969 and caused "a profound 'moral shock' to the nation that haunted it for decades to come." The recent Bulgarian cases are similarly haunting, proving once again that self-immolation -- while harrowing -- is often an effective way of getting the government's attention.


Chinese dissident allegedly beaten as Xi Jinping becomes president

Xi Jinping ascended to the presidency of China on Thursday -- just a day after police summoned prominent dissident Hu Jia on the charge of "provoking quarrels and making trouble," according to a Reuters interview with Hu. The Chinese activist, who has advocated for democratic and environmental causes in China and was imprisoned from April 2008 to June 2011, has accused the authorities of beating him while he was in detention, according to a message his partner posted on Twitter.

Both Hu (pictured above with blind dissident Chen Guangcheng) and his partner Zeng Jinyan are active tweeters, and Zeng live-tweeted her search to find out what happened to Hu. Four hours ago, she tweeted, "At this point, Hu Jia should be calling his daughter on Skype to tell her stories...but I haven't been able to reach him. If anyone has news, please send me an email. Thanks."

Soon, she started calling Zhongcang Police Station, a local station where Hu had been held before. "The policeman who answers the phone at Zhongcang Police Station has become rude, even though I say I'm Hu Jia's wife," she tweeted an hour ago. "He refuses to tell me where Hu Jia is, instead he wants me to call Hu Jia. But I can't get through to Hu Jia!" Half an hour ago, she tweeted, "A few netizens went to Zhongcang Police Station, and said that it's heavily guarded-you can't even get into the lobby. Usually you can easily enter Police Station lobbies..."

And then the news came: "Hu Jia says 'I just finished eight hours of summons, and have been sent back home. This time I've been beaten pretty badly, so I wasn't summoned for 24 hours. They saw that I was injured so sent me home early.' Thanks everyone!"

Whatever the connection is between Hu's alleged beating and Xi's presidency (he became chairman of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top military body, in November) it's an inauspicious sign.