A young Tamil man who has been seeking asylum in Australia heard that he had been definitively been denied refugee protection. and on Wednesday night he doused himself with petrol in Balmain and set himself alight. He’s in hospital now, very badly burnt. Sarah Whyte had the story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Minister Scott Morrison in partnership with the Sri Lankan High Commission have a focus ‘to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man’. And also the SMH cares, enough to carry it on page 9 of the hard copy edition.
This is already being spoken of as a ‘mental health’ issue. But it was also surely a political act. Martin Kovan had a challenging article about politically-motivated self-immolations in Overland a couple of years ago. Speaking in the Tibetan context, he wrote:
The immolations aren’t acts of terrorism, nor even of despairing disempowerment, even though it is clear that they emerge from decades of deep frustration. Their dramatic increase appears to demonstrate an absolute and unconditional commitment to freedom. All the existing written statements of the self-immolators make this clear. They are also a form of radical self-determination: no authority can take such sacrifices away from the community on whose behalf they were performed. They are what Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs calls a legitimate part of the ‘global repertoire of contention’, a form of principled if morally painful action ‘intended to appeal to bystander publics or to exhort others to greater efforts on behalf of the cause’.
‘The immolations,’ he says later in the essay, ‘depend upon global real-time exposure for their influence to be felt; a purely domestic response remains all too vulnerable to internal silencing.’ The most obvious way to silence this young man, whose first name is Janarthanan, is to talk about it as a product of ‘mental illness’. No, it’s a statement about vicious cruelty in Sri Lanka and brutal indifference in Australia.