The suicide by fire of Rev. Bowatte Indaratana in front of the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy caused several heated debates in the media – his motive, his personality, who stood to gain politically from the act, and whether television should have telecast the act itself as news, as one private TV station did – all this became hot debate topics.
There seems to be a general consensus that the media (TV, in this case, as newspaper photographs only carried photographs of the monk after the flames were doused) exploited the monk’s suicide, cynically using it to bolster their ratings with viewers lusting for a daily fare of the gory. One newspaper commentator went so far as to compare the TV images with the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph of a dying Sudanese refugee child stalked by a vulture, taken by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in 1994.
Once the photograph was published, people asked Carter what had happened to the emaciated girl in the picture. Carter said he had no idea. He found the girl alone in the wild. On her way to a refugee camp, she had collapsed and was waiting helplessly while a vulture waited patiently nearby. Carter admitted that he had spent nearly twenty minutes setting up the picture. Having taken it, he then walked away, and had no idea whether the child lived or died. He was roundly condemned for this act and, three months after winning the Pulitzer, and committed suicide.
This writer declares that Carter should have ignored his journalist’s observer role and helped the girl instead, in the same way that the TV news crew should have intervened to prevent the monk’s suicide instead of filming it.
These are actually two very different things. He’s right in the first instance, but wrong in the second. Rev. Indaratana’s suicide was a pre-planned event, not something haphazard. He had told sections of the media that he wished to die that day in full view of the public.
If any member of the public makes such a prior announcement, his/her family have a duty to intervene. If not, the police could actually charge them with criminal negligence. In this case, it’s the police that should have intervened, or Rev. Indararatana’s lay family members, or concerned associates. Dissuading him was not the job of the media.
As to the media’s morality in showing such an act to the world, the question can be asked: If it’s a publicised event, why can’t it be shown? There are certain subjects and acts which may not be shown publicly. For example, if two people stage a sexual act as a pre-planned publicity stunt, the media may refrain from publicising it as it could be deemed pornographic. From that, we can go on to a debate about the pornography of violence, about the sort of images (severed heads, hands, disemboweled bodies, bloodbaths etc.) which the lower-grade publications and some TV stations revel in.
But the monk’s suicide in Kandy doesn’t fall into any of the above categories. In fact, there is a famous historical precedent which all our commentators seem to have missed – the world-famous photograph of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who killed himself in a similar manner (by dousing himself in petrol) in Saigon on June 11, 1963.
" In this case, it’s the police that should have intervened, or Rev. Indararatana’s lay family members, or concerned associates. Dissuading him was not the job of the media "
This black and white image was taken by New York Times photojournalist David Halberstam. Word of an impending self-immolation by a Buddhist monk had been going around for some time. When another announcement was made on June 10, 1963, hardly any news agencies took an interest. AP did, and its bureau chief, along with David Halberstam, was there to witness Rev. Thich arriving in a car, accompanied by other monks. He then calmly sat on the road while petrol was poured on him. A fellow monk then lit a match. Police tried to intervene, but were stopped by monks.
Rev. Thich sat completely still for ten minutes; his body then topped over backwards. The resulting photograph had a huge impact worldwide, causing President Kennedy to reconsider his Vietnam policy. The monk had killed himself against President Din Diem’s policies. He was toppled in a CIA-backed coup several months later.
Why didn’t David Halberstam intervene? It wasn’t his business to do so. No one condemned him for watching and photographing while the monk burned to death. This self-immolation was a planned political protest against the Catholic Din Diem regime, then actively persecuting Buddhists. But we have to be careful drawing comparisons between the two events.
Rev. Thich was a much respected senior monk who had built several monasteries, an intellectual who studied Theravada Buddhism despite his Mahayana roots. He is revered as a Boddhisattva by many Vietnamese today. T
he character of Rev. Indaratana, on the other hand, remains questionable. A known rabble rouser, he had court cases pending against him and was accused of evading justice due to political patronage. The most serious indictment against him, however, is a photograph showing him bare-chested, daring the police to arrest him while leading a mob against Muslim worshippers in Dambulla.
Even though his suicide is said to be a protest against cattle slaughter, his sacrifice failed to achieve anything lasting, whereas Rev. Thich’s death helped achieve the pressing goal of removing Gen. Din Diem from power.
Those who hoped to make political capital out of Rev. Indaratana’ suicide have drawn a complete blank, and there isn’t even a stark image that will keep the memory alive, as it happened in the case of Rev. Thich.
If we are to go forward together as one nation, we should suspend all communal, tribal and religion based political parties. It is more healthy to have national political parties which include people of all ethnicities, religions, classes and regions. It is more enlightened to have political divisions based on political and economical ideallogies. If our society cannot evolve into that higher level of thought, those who understand this need should come forward to bring about this change.
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