The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC all ran stories last week about Tibetan monks who have set themselves on fire to protest against the Chinese government. The stories provoked little reaction in Washington. That was not the case nearly fifty years ago when a sixty-six year-old Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire on June 11, 1963 on the streets of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
To understand Quang Duc’s story it is essential to know the story of Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed president of South Vietnam. He came to power in 1955 in the aftermath of the Geneva Accords, which ended French colonial rule and split Vietnam along the 17th parallel. He had gained national fame when he quit a critical job working for the French colonial government before World War II and then refused to cooperate with the Japanese occupiers during it. But he was hardly the ideal choice to lead the new South Vietnam. He was a French-educated Catholic in a Buddhist majority country, and he had spent much of the decade after World War II living in the United States rather than building a political organization in South Vietnam. And he was hardly a democrat. When he ran in a “national” referendum in October 1955, he arranged it so that he won more than 98 percent of the vote.
Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese public’s support for Diem soon faded. He repressed his opponents and favored his friends and family. His policies to counter the growing strength of the Viet Cong had the opposite effect; they alienated many South Vietnamese against his government. By the spring of 1963, public unrest reached a crisis point. On May 8, residents of Hue, the imperial capital of old Vietnam, organized a rally to protest a ban on flying the Buddhist flag. Police fired on the crowd, killing nine and wounding fourteen. Hunger strikes and more protests followed.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc and more than 300 other monks and nuns marched in a procession down one of Saigon’s major boulevards. Wearing a saffron robe, he sat down in the lotus position on a cushion in the middle of the street. Two other monks emptied a five-gallon can of gasoline on him. Quang Duc then took a match, struck it, and dropped it on himself. The journalist David Halberstam, who was present, described what happened next:
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think. . . . As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
A fire engine raced to extinguish the blaze, but several monks blocked its path. The flames eventually burned out, and the monks placed Quang Duc’s body in a coffin and carried him away.
Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, caught the self-immolation on film. His photograph won the award for World Press Photo of the Year, and it remains among the most famous (and haunting) images from the Vietnam War. It certainly stunned millions of people around the world who saw it in June 1963. As a U.S. embassy official put it, the photo “had a shock effect of incalculable value to the Buddhist cause, becoming a symbol of the state of things in Vietnam.”
Seven other monks soon followed Quang Duc’s example and set themselves afire to protest Diem’s rule. Convinced of his own rectitude, Diem did nothing to appease the growing anger being directed his way. His sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, however, added to it. She likened Quang Duc’s suicide to a “barbecue.” “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.”
President John F. Kennedy said of Browne’s photo that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” The so-called Buddhist Crisis incident certainly helped sour Kennedy on Diem. Five months later, Kennedy looked the other way as a group of South Vietnamese Army generals overthrew and executed Diem. Kennedy himself was assassinated three weeks later in Dallas.
The political crisis that Quang Duc’s self-immolation highlighted did not, however, prompt either Kennedy or his successor, Lyndon Johnson, to rethink the wisdom of the American involvement in South Vietnam. In late 1963, the United States had fewer than 16,000 troops in South Vietnam. Four years later, it had half a million.
The differences between South Vietnam in 1963 and Tibet in 2012 are many and vast. But if history provides any guide, Beijing will no more learn from today’s events than Washington did nearly a half century ago. Indeed, in the wake of two recent self-immolations in Lhasa, China responded by closing Tibet to foreign visitors.