Diverse Voices: 61st Anniversary of the Self-immolation of Vietnamese Monk Thich Quang Duc


Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument. Photo courtesy of Gary Todd of Flickr.

BY DANIEL WINNER | Front Runner New Jersey Correspondent

GRAPHIC WARNING: Contains images which some readers may find disturbing.

June 11, 2024 marks the 61st anniversary of the passing of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in protest against the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem. On June 11, 1963, Quang Duc self-immolated at a busy Saigon road intersection in response to the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam.

US correspondents were notified the day before the fact that “something important” was about to take place in front of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Journalists did not take the message seriously as the “Buddhist crisis” had been going on for nearly a month. This crisis was a period of social and political hostility, which began with the shooting of nine unarmed civilians who were protesting the Roman Catholic government’s ban on flying the Buddhist flag.

The Buddhist flag, flown in Vietnam especially during the Buddha’s Birthday.

Associated Press Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne captured the memorable photographs that became preeminent in US media coverage of the Vietnam War. On the morning of the incident, only two journalists were present at the scene with cameras, including Browne. He would later go on to win the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year for his coverage of the event.

The scene began with two young monks escorting Quang Duc out of an Austin vehicle and into a circle of onlookers blocking traffic. Quang Duc sat down on a tan cushion placed on the asphalt road and was doused with pink liquid from a polyethylene jerry can. It was later discovered by journalists that this was diluted jet fuel, which would allow for the monk’s body to burn for a longer period. Quang Duc himself lit a match and dropped it into his lap.

In Browne’s own words, “His face winced. You could tell from his expression that he was in terrible pain, but he never cried out and he burned for, oh, I suppose 10 minutes or so, or perhaps a bit more. It seemed like an eternity.”

The photo of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was caught by AP correspondent Malcolm Browne.

President John F. Kennedy saw the image in the newspaper and his first reaction was exclaiming, “Jesus Christ,” followed by an ordered review of his administration’s Vietnam policy.

President Kennedy soon responded to the situation by withdrawing support for Diem’s regime, allegedly telling U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge that mistreatment of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well the conditions leading to the protests, had to be put to an end. Protests in Vietnam eventually led to the November 1963 coup which included the arrest and assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Thich Quang Duc brought attention to the international world the abuses and discrimination brought forth against Buddhists during a chaotic period of Vietnam’s history. The Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument was later established in Ho Chi Minh City at the very intersection where he became a political and religious martyr, where his memory is loved and honored by many.

Photo courtesy of Gary Todd of Flickr.

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