Buddhist Monk Sets Himself on Fire

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Buddhist Monk Sets Himself on Fire


By: Malcolm Browne

Date: June 11, 1963

Source: AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

About the Author: Malcolm Browne began his career as a chemist before being drafted during the Korean War and working as a reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper. A war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner, Browne worked as an editor for Discover magazine.


While civil rights protests in the southern United States gained intensity in 1963, during President John F. Kennedy's administration, political events halfway around the world in South Vietnam soon gained worldwide attention via a very different form of political protest.

In 1954, France was forced out of Vietnam after nearly one hundred years as the colonial power in Indochina. At the Geneva Accords, France and Vietnam agreed to split the area along the seventeenth parallel temporarily; elections would be held in 1956 to reunite the country. United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles disagreed with the results of the Geneva Accords, concerned that too much power was relegated to the Communist Party in Vietnam; with communist China and the U.S.S.R. as close neighbors to Vietnam, the Americans saw the possibility of a completely communist Asia as an unacceptable potential result of the Geneva Accords.

In 1955, the Eisenhower administration backed the formation of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam; an unofficial vote led to the election of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic anti-communist. American economic, military, and political aid created Diem's regime as a counterbalance to communism. In November 1955, Eisenhower sent military support to train the South Vietnam army, marking the official beginning of American military involvement in Vietnam.

Diem claimed that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, led by communist Ho Chi Minh, planned to invade South Vietnam. Nearly one million people from North Vietnam poured into South Vietnam between 1955 and 1956; Diem became suspicious that many were sent by Ho Chi Minh as spies. In 1957, with American aid and Central Intelligence Agency assistance, Diem attacked North Vietnam. At the same time he passed Law 10/59, which allowed Diem's government to detain any person suspected of being a communist sympathizer without formal charges and without a trial.

Public protests over Law 10/59 erupted throughout South Vietnam; many of the protestors were Buddhist nuns and monks. Joining peasants and others who fought against the perceived corruption and hegemony of Diem's rule, the Buddhist nuns and monks staged public protests and in some cases actively fought against police forces. In 1961, President Eisenhower's administration and President John F. Kennedy inherited the South Vietnam issue; Diem was viewed as an important ally but also unstable in many ways. Kennedy offered Diem limited military, technical, and financial support, but refused to commit troops. In 1963, Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, attacked Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam, invading sacred religious orders. Nhu accused the monks of harboring communists or being communists themselves; the monks and their supporters filled the streets of Saigon in protest. Self-immolation, or intentional suicide by setting oneself on fire, became an act of political protest for Buddhist monks and nuns in South Vietnam.

In the picture below Thich Quang Duc, a sixty-seven year old monk from the Linh-Mu religious order in South Vietnam, arrived on a busy street corner in Saigon by car. He stepped out of the car and was accompanied by two fellow monks. Thich Quang Duc assumed the lotus meditation position and the two monks poured gasoline on him. He then lit a match and set himself on fire.



See primary source image.


According to Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, self-immolation as a practice is a centuries-old tradition. Viewed as the ultimate sacrifice, self-immolation is believed to be a method or a plea for ending suffering in the world. Thich Quang Duc's dramatic choice of a busy corner in Saigon caught international attention; David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times in 1963, as well as Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, captured the scene in print and film as eyewitnesses to the self-immolation. According to Browne hundreds of nuns and monks lined the streets, prepared to stop anyone who interfered with the self-immolation; the protest was organized as a message to Diem concerning his interference in religious life in South Vietnam and the attacks on pagodas.

The news story and photograph reached an international audience within days and provoked shock and outrage; U.S. President John F. Kennedy reportedly told the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, that the Diem regime's mistreatment of Buddhist nuns and monks and conditions leading to self-immolations had to end. On November 1, 1963, both Diem and his brother Nhu were captured and assassinated.

Malcolm Browne's photograph won the Pulitzer Prize, and Thich Quang Duc's dramatic suicide brought attention to the abuses of the Diem regime. Two months after Thich Quang Duc's self-immolation another monk set himself on fire in Phanthiet, approximately one hundred miles from Saigon. In May 1966 Thich Nu Thanh Quang, a Buddhist nun, set herself on fire in Hue, the town where Thich Quang Duc's pagoda was located.

In 1965, four Americans set themselves on fire to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, in cities ranging from Detroit to New York City to San Diego. Basque nationalists self-immolated during Franco's regime in Spain, while Chinese protestors used self-immolation during student uprisings in 1989. The pattern of self-immolation as a form of protest persists in the twenty-first century; on December 26, 2003 a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in Charlotte, North Carolina to protest human rights abuses in his home country of Vietnam.



Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. Ballantine Books, 1993.

Topmiller, Robert J. The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964–1966. University of Kentucky Press, 2002.


King, Sallie B. "They Who Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist Self-Immolators during the Vietnam War." Buddhist-Christian Studies. (2000): 127.

Web sites

News 14 Carolina. "Monk Sets Himself on Fire in Protest." December 26, 2003. <http://www.news14charlotte. com/content/local_news/> (accessed May 20, 2006).

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