On the 50th anniversary of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation
50 years ago today, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc calmly sat down in the middle of a street in South Vietnam in front of the Cambodian Embassy, while a fellow monk poured gasoline over his head. A moment later, he set himself on fire.
He was protesting the systemic religious discrimination against Buddhists by the Roman Catholic regime of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Although Catholics were very much a minority in the country, they enjoyed majority status and privileges. Buddhists were not allowed to practice their religion in public, serve in the army, and were routinely discriminated against.
When, on May 9th, 1963 9 unarmed Buddhists in Hue, South Vietnam attempted to fly a Buddhist flag on Phat Dan, the birthday of Gautama Buddha, they were shot dead in the street by the dictator’s Catholic army. This incident, which Diem blamed on the Viet-Cong, incited the major protests and civil disobedience among the country’s Buddhist population, known as the Buddhist Crisis.
Thich Quang Duc, along with several other monks, demanded that Diem submit to their five-point -plan for equality. All they were asking for was freedom to fly the Buddhist flag, religious equality between Buddhists and Catholics, compensation for the victims’ families, an end to arbitrary arrests, and punishment for the officials responsible. Although Diem claimed he’d hear them out, upon meeting with the Buddhist delegation, he basically just told them to f-off, insisting that none of this “discrimination” was even happening.
One month later, Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire. Even after his self-immolation and later cremation, his heart remained intact, which Buddhists interpreted as a sign of his great compassion. The heart was originally confiscated by Diem’s regime, but is now preserved as a holy relic in a glass chalice.
The famous picture at the top of this post, captured by the AP’s Malcolm Browne, sent shock waves around the world. Particularly in the US, as President Kennedy had previously been one of Diem’s most ardent supporters. Diem’s sister-in-law, the acting First Lady of South Vietnam, however, responded by saying that she just couldn’t wait for another “monk barbecue.”
This act, as well as the Hue Phat Dan shootings, played an important part in igniting the coup of Diem’s government, resulting in the assassination of Diem and his brother.
This video below of Thich Quang Duc’s self immolation is horrifying. I’m posting it anyway because I think it’s important. Sometimes you need to be horrified. We’re in the middle of a war, and we never see bodies, we don’t see the blood and the guts and that is why it’s so easy to pretend that it isn’t even going on anymore, or that they’re all just over there in Afghanistan playing backgammon.
Incidently, this is what Richard Pryor was watching before he doused himself in rum and set himself on fire. Just before, he remarked to his friend “He didn’t even flinch.”
Self-immolation still continues as a form of protest, most commonly in Tibet, which Buddhists continue to face systemic oppression and ethnic cleansing by the occupational Chinese government. In the past two years alone, over 100 people in Tibet have set themselves on fire in these protests. Perhaps if those photos and videos were more widely circulated, the US would be just a little more embarrassed to be so buddy-buddy with its “number one trade partner.”