There have been a wave of self-immolations in Bulgaria. In total, 10 people have killed themselves by this method so far this year in protests against the government.
Self-immolation is a method of political protest that we normally associate with the Far East. It has been used periodically by Tibetan monks for many years and was another of the horrifying, enduring images of the Vietnam War. It was this symbolic act of protest in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. It’s power as a form of protest emanates from the fact that it takes a feat of both great courage and immense desperation to do. To set yourself on fire, to be in terrible pain, and to very often die as a result of the burns or of asphyxiation. In the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, burning at the stake was one of the most brutal punishments given for treason (or the greatest sacrifice endured as a martyr for one’s faith).
So why are people in Bulgaria turning to such a form of protest and why have we heard hardly a whisper of it here?
Bulgaria is a post-Communist state, a member of the EU, and as far as coverage of the country is concerned a beautiful and cheap place to holiday. Bulgaria, though, has a dark underbelly and remains in the grips of a struggle to break from its communist past and emerge as a fully democratic nation. Controlled by former communist leaders, the political system is in no way a free and fair democratic system. Political progression is gained by way of subversion, nepotism and money. Assen Yourdenoff, a Bulgarian journalist, aptly describes the “Transitional Period” from communism to democracy as an ‘unscrupulous robbery by the former structure of the Communist Party and the National Security Agency, which used their political position to transform the state’s wealth from public to their personal property’. One of their former Presidents, Boiko Borisov was a suspected ampethamine smuggler and other powerful political actors have convictions, if not very well-founded suspicions, concerning smuggling and counterfeiting. The mafia holds the power in Bulgaria, using “democratic” politics as their face at both national and local level. The popular saying that, ‘Every country has a mafia, in Bulgaria the mafia has a country’, is markedly accurate.
In the grips of a seemingly permanent recession, people are poorer than ever. According to one Bulgarian self-immolator who survived, in the Communist era there was money but nothing to buy, whereas now there is no money and everything to buy. Moreover, energy costs are soaring, again controlled by the the mafia, and people are faced with a genuine choice between freezing to death or starving to death. In the wake of such pressures and mounting grievances, earlier this year Plamen Goranov set himself on fire in front of Varna City Hall demanding the resignation of the city mayor and all the city council, as they were in the pocket of TIM, the “up-and-coming star of Bulgaria’s organized crime”. His death sparked rioting and protests around the country and did in fact lead to the resignation of the city mayor. These ensuing protests and riots eventually led to the resignation of the country’s president. Sadly, he was replaced with a man of the same ilk, whose clear corruption led to more protests and also his resignation.
The increased numbers of self-immolation have not all had such clear political motives and understanding as Plamen Goranov’s though. Details of some covered in the superb, 14-minute Vice Documentary show people who are desperate, poor, and see it as their only way to bring attention to their poverty. This though, really, is an equally shocking political statement demonstrating the anguished plight of the Bulgarian people.
These acts are shocking. The desperation they demonstrate is deeply disturbing. What is more, it worries me that with such a struggle for democracy taking place in an EU country, why so little attention is given to the issue by our country and our press.
(All quotes and information taken from Vice Magazine article and documentary)