On June 11, 1963, in Saigon, Vietnam, a Buddhist Monk called Thích Quảng Đức immolated himself on a busy intersection, in protest of the oppressive Diem Government in South Vietnam. In the middle of 1963, there was a general state of awareness among a community of Vietnamese Buddhist, who beginning in the middle of June 1963, began to set themselves on fire and died publicly – as a mark of protest against the government and its oppressive ways.
In these incidents, one particular incident involved a 73 year old monk, called Thich Quang Duc, who sat at a busy downtown intersection and had gasoline poured over him by two other monks. Even as a massive crowd of Buddhists and reporters watched on, he lit a match and set himself ablaze, and burned to death while remaining seated in the lotus position. In the words of’ David Halberstam, who was at that time filing daily reports on the war with the New York Times, “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. 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 to even 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.”
His remains were reduced to ashes. But, Quang Duc’s heart had not burned. It was retrieved, enshrined, and treated as a sacred relic.
The event was photographed by most popular magazines, and a bunch of burning monks were featured in many magazines. Despite so much coverage, there was precious little attention given to these scholars of religion or their protest. Instead, some of the photographers’ images were relegated to sensational cover images and that was all that was done about it. Among the photographs that were shot, one was by a photographer called Browne, and the image was carried in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 12, 1963, and found its way to President John F Kennedy’s desk. Although not much was done in a rather tumultuous time that soon also witnessed Napalm attacks and the like, there was a lot of value imposed on the truth and sanctity in the right to protest that subsists in an individual. Self-immolation continues to remain one of the major modes of protest – think Bouazizi in Tunisia.