In 1963, a Vietnamese monk committed self-immolation in front of hundreds of people. But why did the burning monk light himself on fire? The simple answer is as a protest, but the reasons behind his final act go much deeper and shed light on a deeply conflicted and war-torn nation.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, South Vietnam was going through a period of religious intolerance. Although Buddhists made up around 80 percent 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. Buddhists were not allowed to fly their religious flags, and were openly discriminated against by Catholics. Even though there were many fewer Catholics, they often held higher positions of power.
There were a number of protests by large groups of Buddhists in the spring of 1963, and many were met with violence from the police and government. These clashes led to deaths – including those of children.
The situation reached a peak on June 11, 1963, when an older monk named Thich Quang Duc committed ritual suicide in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon. 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, burning him to death.
The crowd that had gathered was stunned by his act of martyrdom, and it was captured by several Western journalists and photographers. The photo of the monk on fire became an indelible image of the 1960s, and his death was a tipping point for the fight for religious tolerance in Vietnam.
The Monks Were Demanding Acceptance
President Diem's discrimination of the Buddhist population pushed hundreds of monks to protest and call for change. In May of 1963 they presented the government with five demands, which included 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 take much more drastic action to fight for what they believed was right.
A Journalist Captured Duc's Utter Composure
Duc prepared himself for his fiery death with a steady, calm demeanor. David Halberstam, a journalist for the New York Times, was present for Duc's suicide 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."
Duc's Heart Did Not Burn
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 for whatever reason his heart did not burn and remained intact.
Duc's heart was placed on display in a glass container in the Xa Loi Pagoda. It was seen as a sacred relic representing compassion.
JFK Addressed The Deep Emotional Impact Of The Moment
Once photographer Malcolm Browne sent the photos he had taken of the monk on fire to the Associated Press, they made it to newspapers in the United States within 16 hours. The Western reaction to the images was one of shock, 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 and news of what was occurring with the Buddhists in Vietnam supposedly made Kennedy take a second look at America's policies and presence in the country.