Czechs mark 50 years since Jan Palach's self-immolation over crushing of Prague Spring

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs marked the 50th anniversary on Wednesday of student Jan Palach setting himself on fire in central Prague in a desperate act aimed at lifting the apathy hanging over the country in the wake of the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring of 1968.

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Having seen a period of reforms to Czechoslovakia’s Communist system snuffed out by the invasion five months earlier, and the widespread public demoralization that followed, the 20-year-old Palach decided to take action.

He went to Wenceslas Square on Jan. 16, 1969, poured petrol over his head and set himself on fire. Passers-by smothered him with their coats, but the student of economics and philosophy died three days later of his burns.

Palach left a letter behind calling for the end of censorship and Soviet propaganda, and for a general strike.

“I marched back then with the students (after Palach’s death),” said Robert Gruen, 70, while visiting a commemorative open-air exhibition in Wenceslas Square. “Today I think a man’s life is too important to end it like that.”

Dozens of public events were held across the Czech Republic on Wednesday, including a concert alongside the exhibition in Wenceslas Square and the unveiling of a memorial plaque at Charles University, where Palach studied. Marches with lights were planned at several places for the evening.

Palach called himself “Torch no. 1” in his letter, giving the impression that he was a part of a larger group which in fact did not exist. But several others followed his example in Czechoslovakia and other eastern bloc countries.

“People must fight against the evil they feel equal to measure up to at that moment,” Palach said before he died in hospital on Jan. 19.

The Czechs mourned Palach, but his act failed to overturn the consolidation of power by Soviet-backed hard-liners who brought a period of repression that lasted until the end of Communist rule in 1989.

On the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death in January 1989, thousands protested in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in two decades. They were violently dispersed by police, but cracks were revealed in the authoritarian system that months later was toppled in the Velvet Revolution.

“This was exactly what he wanted, that people speak out, protest, fight for their rights. After 20 years, his story reached a conclusion,” said historian Petr Blazek.

Palach’s act was modeled on the 1963 self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thin Quang Duc in Saigon, in protest at the government’s treatment of the Buddhist community.

It was later echoed at the start of the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia, which began after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010.

Reporting by Jiri Skacel and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Hugh Lawson