22 Oct 2017

Man sets himself on fire, Poland has déjà vu

Last week, a 54 year old Polish man set himself on fire... This story echoes a 49 year old event in which a 59 year old torched himself in the heart of Warsaw 1968 in protest of a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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Man sets himself on fire, Poland has déjà vu - NewsMavens
Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Last week, a 54 year old Polish man set himself on fire.

He traveled across half the country to Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science -- a giant building in the heart of the capital -- as the leader of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party attended a meeting inside.

According to state media reports, he was a depressed, troubled old man.

According to private media, he was protesting the government and left leaflets explaining why.

He was taken from the scene to a hospital where he died. The whole story boils down to four short sentences. I feel that an act so tragic and major and desperate would warrant more, and apparently, so do many social media users in Poland.

Many commenters are wondering why there's not more information, why there's not more reporting -- is it that the state media, the police, and prosecution are increasingly puppets in PiS's hands?

@alano461 said "Self-immolation in Warsaw. Why the silence on TT?" while @konsTYtucJApl said private broadcaster "TVN hasn't uttered a SINGLE WORD... not sensationalist enough? or censorship?"

Then there are many others who have plenty of choice words for the man, which are hateful and unfair regardless of whether he was passionately anti-government or seriously mentally unstable. Check out the comments to the video below, but be warned, it is deeply disturbing.

When I heard the news I immediately had déjà vu. It reminded me of something I read (in Polish) a few weeks ago. This story echoes a 49 year old event in which a 59 year old Ryszard Siwiec, aka Jan Polak, inspired by the anti-Vietnam War protests of Buddhist monks, doused himself in paint thinner and torched himself in the heart of Warsaw 1968 in protest of a Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Siwiec was handing out anti-communist leaflets at the former national stadium in Warsaw, where there might have been some 100,000 people when he set himself on fire. Despite many witnesses, the story went unnoticed and largely unreported. The incident was explained away by authorities who painted Siwiec as a sick, depressed man, also suggesting he was a drunken smoker who set alcohol fumes alight with his cigarette, or that he spontaneously self-combusted.

He wrote a heartbreaking suicide note while in the train to Warsaw which remained a secret, as his death and the above footage did, until after the fall of communism. He was, according to wiki, the first of about a dozen anti-communist activists to set himself on fire for the cause in Central and Eastern Europe.

The latest self-immolation to me is alarming. The fact that it seems to mirror a series of similar incidents that date back near 50 years makes it all the more so. I wait anxiously to see how many parallels there will be between this latest event and the ones that preceded it. But frighteningly, the total lack of transparency might be the only major similary to come out, other than the obvious government manipulation of the incident. Officials from the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party have blamed the opposition for the man's death, accusing leftist groupings of egging on political dissenters. And they say this despite the man leaving this clear message:

"I want for the PiS-chief and the PiS nomenclature to be aware that my death directly burdens them, that my blood is on their hands".

Here's what the man wrote in his leaflet

  • I protest against limitations to human (illegible) and civil liberties
  • I protest against the rules of democracy being broken by the government, specifically against the (practical) destruction of the Constitutional Tribunal and the destruction of the independence of the courts
  • I protest against authorities breaking the law, specifically the Constitution. I protest against those who are responsible for it including the president) taking any steps towards changing the current constitution -- they should first abide by the one that's in place
  • I protest against...
  • I protest against Poland's role in the international arena being marginalized...
  • I protest against the destruction of the environment, specifically by those who could protect it (logging in the Białowieża forest)...
  • I protest against dividing society, strengthening and deepening that divide. I especially protest against the profession of the "Smolensk religion" and using it to divide people. I protest against spreading of hate, such as at "Smolensk monthiversaries"
  • I protest against filling all possible vacancies with people who largely do not hold the necessary qualifications
  • I protest against belittling the achievements of, defaming and destroying authority figures such as Lech Wałęsa and former heads of the Constitutional Tribunal
  • I protest against the excessive centralization of the state and legal changes to local governments and non-government organizations to suit the current needs of the ruling party
  • I protest against the government's hostile approach to immigrants and against discrimination of various minority groups, women, homosexuals and others, Muslims and others.
  • I protest against the total incapacitation of public television and just about all the radio and making them propaganda machines of the government...
  • I protest against using special services, police, and prosecution for achieving own (party and private) goals
  • I protest against the ill-conceived, uncontrolled and unprepared education reform
  • I protest against ignoring the huge healthcare protests 
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