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The history behind the picture : "a monk immoles himself"

09/03/2020 855 Views

Picture by Malcolm Browne, one of the only 2 present occidental reporters

«A Buddhist monk has immolated himself! He is a martyr!»

Picture of the year 1963, Pulitzer Prize 1963, this picture has shocked and moved everywhere around the globe.

Behind this striking picture, the story of a man of unshakeable faith, a political regime in crisis, an international impact and a turning point in the history of Vietnam.

The most venerable Thich Quang Duc

From his birth name Lâm Văn Tǫc, the monk Thich Quang Du devoted his life to a religious vocation from the age of 7. Respected and highly committed to his faith, he travelled throughout Vietnam to instruct the teachings of Buddhism and notably built 31 pagodas throughout his life. He was also appointed Chairman of the Group of Experts on Ceremonies and Rites of the Congregation of Vietnamese Monks, as well as Superior Monk of the Headquarters of the Association of Buddhist Studies of Vietnam.

In 1963, the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc volunteered to publicly self-immolate himself to protest against the injustices to the Buddhism religion from the ruling government.
He is chosen among other candidates for his spiritual qualities, virtue, wisdom and experience.


The Austin Westminster used by Thich Quang Duc, now exposed at the Tien Mu Pagoda in Hue
On June 11, 1963, followed by about 350 Buddhist monks and nuns, the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc arrived in Saigon in a sky blue Austin. He calmly descends from it, sits down in the lotus position on a cushion placed by another monk, gets sprayed with gasoline by a second, then lights a match on himself to catch fire immediately.

Deceased a few moments later, without a sound, the face barely tensed by pain, the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc is wrapped in sheets to be transported to the Pagoda Xa Loi in Saigon.

His heart was cremated a second time before his funeral but will never fall into ashes, symbol of the purity and compassion of the monk. This heart will soon become a relic that will be constantly pursued by the forces of the government in power.

A regime in crisis

Ngoi Dinh Diem, president of Vietnam from 1952 to 1963

Clarifying the political context in this photo is just as important to understand this tragedy.

We are in the year 1963, during what is not yet the armed conflict with the United States, but during a period when the country is tearing itself apart.

Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diêm, in the south, is a multi-faceted character. Former prime minister of the last Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai whom he helped to overthrow, anti-French, anti-communist (and thus friend with the Americans), but above all very Catholic. He centralizes an authoritarian power and grants high-ranking positions to several members of his family, while using police forces to establish his authority.

For Buddhists in particular, who represent (still today) three-quarters of the Vietnamese population, the current regime has precipitated its own fall by persecuting them and limiting their freedom of religion.

In May 1963, the Buddhist flag affair was the culmination of the government’s intolerance of this majority religion. After this ban on raising Buddhist flags during the celebration of the birth of Buddha, several peaceful demonstrations of Buddhists are repressed in violence. Pagodas are destroyed by the armed forces of the government, or even worse, by newly converted Catholic priests who have recently won the right to carry a firearm.

An international impact and a decisive turning point in Vietnam’s history

In just a few hours, the pictures travel around the world and raise emotion. Kennedy will even say, “No current photo has ever generated more global emotion than this one.”


A monk bows down in front of the calcinated body of Thich Quang Duc

Other Buddhist monks and nuns followed the example of the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc by immolating themselves, causing further repression in violence. Other demonstrations are suppressed, other pagodas destroyed and other monks and nuns persecuted. 

The Diem regime fell a few months later, the president and his brother were murdered by their own generals. The fall of the regime marked a turbulent period, the beginning of the direct military intervention of the United States in Vietnam to finally lead to the American withdrawal and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

In addition to generating an indescribable emotion from both the beauty and the tragedy of the cliché, the act of the Most Venerable Thich Quang Duc was part of the rise of anti-American imperialism sentiment. 

Not well understood by the American people themselves, source of American defeats and considerable casualties, war crimes, atrocities, other poignant clichés and war reporting leaving speechless, the Vietnam War was a complex conflict which traces are still visible today.

Vietnam’s history is a complex science, involving many people, ethnicitie and different nationalities making any description or complete analysis impossible. Malcolm Browne’s cliché of the venerable Thich Quang Duc embodies this strong people, willing to do anything to defend themselves, to assert their rights and values. Known as a welcoming and warm people, the Vietnamese smile hides the history and suffering of generations, giving them unshakeable strength.

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