In 1963, a Vietnamese monk committed self-immolation in front of hundreds of people. While his primary motivation was protest, the full reasoning behind his final act shed unexpected light on a deeply conflicted nation.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was corrupted by religious intolerance. Although Buddhists comprised about 80% of the population, Ngo Dinh Diem, the newly-declared President of South Vietnam, was a Catholic who had decisively stripped the religious freedoms of Buddhists. This group was not allowed to fly their religious flags and were openly discriminated against by Catholics. Even though there were far fewer Catholics, they often held higher positions of power.
The spring of 1963 saw numerous Buddhist protests, many of which were met with fierce resistance from the police and government. These clashes led to many fatalities – including those of children.
This tension peaked on June 11, 1963, when an older monk named Thich Quang Duc performed a ritualistic ending to his own life in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. He sat in the traditional lotus position as other monks poured gasoline over his head. After Duc uttered a Buddhist prayer, one of his colleagues lit a match and dropped it into his lap, engulfing him in flames.
The crowd that gathered was stunned by his act of martyrdom, and it was even captured by several Western journalists and photographers. The photos of the burning monk became an indelible image of the 1960s, and his final act of protest was a tipping point for the fight for religious tolerance in Vietnam.
President Diem's discrimination of the Buddhist population pushed hundreds of monks to protest for change. In May of 1963, they presented the government with five demands, including proposed laws against religious discrimination and the freedom to fly whichever religious flags they chose.
The government had promised the monks a response, but Diem essentially ignored their requests. This silence from their government ultimately pushed the monks to much more drastic action to fight for their convictions.
Duc prepared himself for his fiery demise with a steady, calm demeanor. David Halberstam, a journalist for the New York Times, was present for Duc's immolation and wrote about the dramatic act:
"I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him."
As for Duc himself, he left his final words in a letter:
"Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism."
After Duc's self-immolation was complete, the other monks placed robes over his body and carried him away in a makeshift wooden coffin. He was later re-cremated for a proper burial, but mysteriously, his heart did not burn and remained intact.
Duc's heart was placed on display in a glass container in the Xa Loi Pagoda and was seen as a sacred relic representing compassion.
Once photographer Malcolm Browne sent his "monk on fire" photos to the Associated Press, they reached US newspapers within 16 hours. The Western reaction to the images was decidedly shocked, and President Kennedy was quoted as saying, "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one." Browne was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph.
The photos, in addition to the news of religious discrimination in Vietnam, supposedly led Kennedy to reexamine America's policies and presence in the country, ultimately culminating in the US's involvement in the Vietnam War.