Czechs remember student who set himself on fire for country’s freedom

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Czechs paid tribute on Wednesday to a student activist who set himself on fire 50 years ago to protest for his country’s freedom, with some warning that his rallying cry still resonates under the current populist government.

Commemoration events were held in Prague, including the central Wenceslas Square where philosophy student

poured petrol over himself on January 16, 1969, in protest of the Soviet-led occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia.

His self-immolation was intended to urge Czechoslovaks to resist a new hardline regime absolutely loyal to the Kremlin, following the 1968 invasion which crushed the “Prague Spring” liberal movement.

With burns to 85 per cent of his body, Palach died on January 19, 1969, aged 20. “People must fight against the evil they feel equal to at that moment,” he whispered on his death bed.

Writer, historian and former dissident Petr Placak said that Palach’s cause remains relevant in the modern Czech Republic.

“Something harmful can be seen today as well – society is in a state of lethargy much like 1969,” he said at a ceremony on Wednesday.

“Populist and extremist parties are now in the majority in parliament,” he said, urging for the memory of Palach to help lead the “revival of civil society”.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s populist ANO movement was only able to form a government last year with the backing of the KSCM Communist party, which is nostalgic for the country’s communist era.

It marked the first time Communists have played a key role in forming a government since the Velvet Revolution finally overthrew the communist regime in 1989.

“Jan Palach’s desperate cry serves as a reminder for us to continue to care for freedom and democracy — and fight for them,” said Tomas Zima, head of Prague’s Charles University, where Palach studied.

Czech priest and intellectual Tomas Halik — winner of the 2014 Templeton Prize following laureates such as the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa — said at a ceremony that “Palach’s call compels us to be brave and not trust the populists”.

“The truth is something it is always important to fight for,” he said.

A commemorative plaque in Palach’s honour was unveiled during Wednesday events, which were to culminate in a torchlit march through the centre of Prague.

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