Tag Archives: south vietnam

Finding a powerful piece of history

I think exploring history is like looking at the nighttime starry sky. No matter where you look you can discover something new. This week I came across a powerful and moving story while researching the song “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine.

On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức performed the act of “self-immolation” at a busy Saigon road intersection in protest.

The act itself occurred at the intersection of Phan Dinh Phung Boulevard and Le Van Duyet Street. Thích Quảng Đức emerged from the car along with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road while the second opened the trunk and took out a five-gallon gasoline can. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Thích Quảng Đức calmly seated himself in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. His colleague emptied the contents of the gasoline container over Thích Quảng Đức’s head. Thích Quảng Đức rotated a string of wooden prayer beads and recited the words “Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật” (“homage to Amitabha Buddha”) before striking a match and dropping it on himself. Flames consumed his robes and flesh, and black oily smoke emanated from his burning body.

Thích Quảng Đức was protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Ngô Đình Diệm administration. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm regime.

A spokesperson for the Buddhists had alerted U.S. correspondents the day before that “something important” was going to happen, but most reporters disregarded that message.

Photographer and journalist Malcolm Browne did show up and took the picture above, which won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 1963.

Journalist David Halbertsam of the New York Times also was there and wrote this eyewitness account:

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 human 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.

Information for this posting came from Wikipedia: Thích Quảng Đức. That page contains much more information about the aftermath of Đức’s protest.

This week I was enjoying the song “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. The song is a commentary on killing in the name of religion or God. For the cover art for the single the band chose the famous photograph of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation.

That photo is what prompted me to learn more, and I’m glad I did. I find this to be a deeply moving, powerful and disturbing story.

I was quite surprised to learn just how common the act of self-immolation can be. You can read about many more examples at Wikipdedia: Self-immolation.

Here’s a video of the song “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine: