'CLARE CHAPMAN


DISILLUSIONED teenagers in the Czech Republic have been setting themselves on fire in a spate of horrific incidents which mirror the actions of a youth who died in front of crowds of people as he protested against Communist oppression in 1968.

At least five teenagers have died, with 16 young Czechs trying to commit suicide this year alone by dousing themselves in petrol and setting light to themselves.

Senior politicians have pleaded for an end to the incidents, baffled by the young people's actions at a time when the Czech Republic is set to join the European Union and is undergoing rapid modernisation.

Jan Palach's ultimate protest was seen across the world in January 1969 at the end of the so-called Prague Spring when thousands of people rose up against communist oppression.

A philosophy student, Palach was angered at the Czechs' and Slovaks' apathy over the Soviet occupation of the country.

Hoping to shake up his fellow countrymen, Palach marched into Wenceslas Square on a busy weekday afternoon and held a lit match to his petrol-drenched body. He died three days later from his injuries. Several more people tried to repeat Palach's protest in the following months.

The recent incidents come against the backdrop of high unemployment, a weak economy and low wages. Just last month, a 17-year-old boy covered himself in petrol at a Prague petrol station and turned himself into a human torch.

Student Zdenek Adamec also set himself on fire in front of crowds of people in Prague's Wenceslas Square.

Like Palach, Adamec's motive for killing himself in such a dramatic fashion was to draw attention to the situation in the Czech Republic. In a letter he left behind, the 19-year-old criticised the country's government. Describing himself as "another victim of the democratic system, where it is not people who decide, but power and money".

He wrote: "Drugs, violence, money and power - these are the watchwords of our civilisation. The so-called democracy we gained is not a democracy. It?s about the rule of officials, money and treading on people. The whole world is corrupted by money and is spoilt, depraved."

MP Jaroslav Moserova, a former doctor who treated Palach, said he understood why young people took such drastic measures despite the changes in the country since the 1960s.

He said: "Back then it was different. Palach and his contemporaries did it to shake up the conscience of this nation, and their deaths were viewed with respect. Now the situation is not the same, but people are just as desperate. There is a great deal of despair arising among the young. All they see around them is war, unemployment and poverty."

But Czech President Vaclav Klaus said: "I know that our world is complicated and life is often painful. But life should be considered a gift."

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