On the evening of June 10, 1963 Malcolm Browne, a 30-year-old photographer from New York who was employed by Associated Press to cover the war, received a call telling him to be at a particular intersection in Saigon the next morning as something important was going to happen. He was there waiting the following morning, along with David Halberstam, a reporter from The New York Times, when a car pulled up and three or four monks got out.
Thich Quang Duc Self Immolation
June 11, 1963, after four years of increased opposition by the Diem government towards Buddhist priests, 67 year old Thich Quang Duc decided to do self-immolation in protest of the President’s policies. He reached at a busy intersection in Saigon with a procession of about 350 monks. He was traveling in a Austin Westminster sedan car in front of the procession. At the intersection he came out of the car along with two other monks. One of those monks placed a cushion in the middle of the road on which Thich Quang Duc sat in lotus position. The other monk emptied a 5 liter gasoline can on him while Thich Quang Duc rotated a string of wooden beads in his hand. Praying to Buddha, he struck a match and within a couple of moments he was engulfed by flames.
Duc was protesting against the Roman Catholic persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem Roman Catholic administration. The Catholic regime had cracked down on practicing Buddhists by banning the flying of the traditional Buddhist flag; prohibiting Buddhists from exercising the same religious freedoms as Catholics; and the continued detainment of Buddhist monks and nuns — a moment referred to as The Buddhist Crisis.
After approximately ten minutes, Thich Quang Duc’s body was not fully immolated, and it toppled forward onto the street and the fire subsided. A group of monks covered the smoking corpse with yellow robes, picked it up and tried to fit it into a coffin, but the limbs could not be bent and one of the arms protruded from the wooden box as he was carried to the nearby Xa Loi Pagoda in central Saigon. Thich Quang Duc’s body was re-cremated but his heart still did not burn! It was considered holy and is still preserved in Xa Loi Pagoda.
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the wife of Diem’s younger brother and chief adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was regarded as the First Lady of South Vietnam and often referred to as the Dragon Lady was also known for her harsh remarks about Buddhists said that she would “clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show”, a comment which further heightened Buddhist discontent. In late June, Diem’s government charged that Thich Quang Duc had been drugged before being forced to commit suicide. The regime also accused Browne of bribing Thich Quang Duc to burn himself.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, whose government was the main sponsor of Diem’s regime, learned of the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc when he was handed the morning newspapers while he sat in bed talking to his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, on the phone. Kennedy was reported to have interrupted their conversation about segregation in Alabama by exclaiming “Jesus Christ!”. He later remarked that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.
The photograph appeared around the world and changed public sentiment towards the Diem government. In 1964 Malcolm Browne and David Halberstam won the Pulitzer prize for their individual reporting of the Vietnam war and the overthrow of the Diem regime.
In recounting his coverage of the event for PBS’s “Reporting America at War” series, Malcolm Browne discusses what it was like to be in that moment:
It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end. At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed, but you could see from his expression that he was exposed to intense agony, and that he was dying on the spot — and then, in the end, when the body was rigidly burned, they couldn’t stuff him into a casket because he was splayed out in all directions. As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat. It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. If one wants to be gruesome about it, it was a very easy sequence of pictures to take. Work is a great panacea for the horrors of that sort of situation, or of a battle, for that matter. I think combat photographers are very conscious of the idea that the real fear comes later, after they get home and develop their film and have a look at what they were through. Then they are aware that they nearly died.
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