On June 11th, 1963 a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc entered a busy square in Saigon accompanied 350 of his fellow monks and nuns. The monks and nuns formed a circle around Duc as he was saturated with gasoline, and to the shock of foreign corresponds and journalists, was lit on fire. As the flames consumed Duc, he sat serenely in lotus position, completely oblivious to pain as he was consumed by fire. When the flames died down, what remained was a blackened, charred corpse.
The self immolation of Thich Quang Duc resulted in one of the most iconic photographs of Vietnam in the 1960′s. As news of the self immolation traveled around the world, the question arose, why did he do it?
At the time South Vietnam was primarily governed by a Vietnamese politician named Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem had been made President of South Vietnam in 1955 after winning a heavily rigged election. Although he was officially the president of a representative government, in reality he had the powers of a dictator. Diem was a Catholic, and throughout his rule he enacted pro Catholic policies that heavily discriminated against non-Catholics. Around 70-90% of South Vietnamese citizens were Buddhist, but despite being the overwhelming majority Buddhists found themselves second class citizens in their own country. Catholics were favored for high ranking military and civil positions, while Buddhists were likewise barred from such positions while Buddhists serving in the military were turned down for promotions. Catholics also were granted several privileges such as special tax breaks and exemption from corvee labor (labor performed in lieu of taxes). The government distributed firearms to local defense militias, but only to those in Catholic villages. The Catholic Church was the largest land owner in the country, and was granted special exemptions in land acquisitions. Catholic priests and bishops often had private armies, which would loot or demolish Buddhist temples, or conduct forced conversion of villages. The Vatican Flag was flown at official government and public events, yet the Buddhist flag was often banned during Buddhist holidays. In order to publicly celebrate Buddhists holidays, special government permission was needed. In 1959, Diem officially dedicated South Vietnam to the Virgin Mary. Yeah Diem was a man of incredible chutzpah as well as excessive stupidity.
Diem’s Pro-Catholic policies led to severe distrust between the South Vietnamese people and the Diem regime. In May, the Diem government decreed that the Buddhist flag could not be flown in Hue during the Buddhist holiday called Vesak, which celebrates the Buddha’s birthday. In response, people protested by taking to the streets and marching with Buddhist flags. Government forces responded by firing on the crowd, killing nine. Protests erupted across the country. In one incident, when monks occupied a square in protest, soldiers and police poured liquid tear gas chemicals on the monk’s heads, severely wounding 69. Martial law was also declared, and the military undertook a campaign or raiding Buddhist temples, shrines, and pagodas. As the protests grew, the Diem regime responded with increasingly heavy handed tactics. When students in Saigon protested, Diem order 1,000 of them arrested and sent to re-education camps, some of them being as young as 5.
After Duc’s self immolation many other monks would repeat the act in protest. It is often erroneously stated that Duc burned himself to protest the Vietnam War, however this is not true. It should be noted though that throughout the Vietnam War, 5 American anti-war protesters repeated the act between 1965 and 1970. Many people in Eastern Europe would do the same in the late 1960′s and 1970′s in protest against Communism and the Soviet Union. Under pressure from the American Government, South Vietnam’s prime backer, Diem agreed to a list of demands by the Buddhists. However, Diem never followed through with the agreement. In October of 1963, a US backed coup erupted and toppled Diem’s regime. Diem was captured while trying to escape on November 1st, and was executed by bayonet.