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On This Day

June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc



Photo credit (from left to right): Bettmann/GettyImages, Manhai/Flickr, Unknown. Background: Malcolm Browne/Associated Press. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

The “On This Day” series aims to introduce contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred on this day in the past. 

What happened? 

On the morning of June 11, 1963, an elder Buddhist monk emerged from more than 300 monks protesting on a busy street of Saigon.[1] As the monks formed a circle around him, the elder monk, whose Buddhist name was Thich Quang Duc, stepped forward and sat down in a lotus position. The other monks poured gasoline on him, and one monk handed some matches to Quang Duc. 

Moments later, in a horrifying scene, the elder monk was consumed by fire. 

The onlookers were horrified, and the police present on the street tried to call fire trucks, but the accompanying monks collectively blocked the trucks. Without a doubt, Quang Duc’s self-immolation was a part of a coordinated protest by South Vietnam’s Buddhist monks. 

In the following months after Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, at least five other Buddhists committed suicide by burning themselves. His self-immolation also inspired many other Buddhists and bonzes in South Vietnam to do so in the following years. 

As Thich Quang Duc committed suicide publicly, Associated Press photojournalist Malcolm Browne captured the moment. The picture of the burning monk became one of the most circulated and haunting images of the Vietnam War.[2] 

Why did the monk burn himself? 

Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation prompted multiple interpretations. 

The conventional interpretation from the current Vietnamese Communist state sees the self-immolation as an act of protest against the South Vietnamese government, at the time headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem.[3] Though the leaders expressed some empathy with the Buddhists’ frustration, the South Vietnamese government and its supporters mostly saw them as misled by the Communists.[4] The international public saw the act as protesting the ongoing Vietnam War and the American intervention.

It is undeniable that the series of Buddhist protests in 1963 in South Vietnam were triggered by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s mishandling of religious issues, which made the Buddhists feel like they were discriminated against while their Christian counterparts were given many more benefits.[5]

However, all of these narratives ignore the fact that the self-immolation and the series of Buddhist protests were a part of the more significant Buddhist crisis ongoing in South Vietnam throughout 1963, motivated by frustration and a unique political ideology. 

According to historian Edward Miller of Dartmouth College, the crisis was the result of not only the regime’s mishandling of religious issues but also because of the Buddhists’ own vision of nation-building for Vietnam, which happened to clash with both the regime in the South as well as the Communists in the North.[6] 

Their political beliefs were neither pro-North Vietnam nor anti-South Vietnam but instead purely Buddhist. They were a part of a more significant movement called Buddhist revival (Chấn Hưng Phật Giáo) that got started in Vietnam at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Under the belief of Buddhist revival, many monks and Buddhists subscribed to a particular Vietnamese-Buddhist nationalism, which saw Buddhism as the national religion and the only path to Vietnam’s future prosperity. 

Followers of Buddhist revival had a distinctive historical narrative that saw Buddhism as the source of the prosperity of the ancient kingdom Dai Viet, the predecessor of modern Vietnam that flourished around the 10th to the 13th century. The followers of Buddhist revival thought that Vietnam was only weakened and became corrupted due to Chinese colonization and its import of philosophy, from Confucianism to Taoism. Similarly, they viewed both Communism and Ngo Dinh Diem’s Personalist Revolution[7] as Western-imported ideologies that were also unsuitable for Vietnam. 

Thich Quang Duc was a part of this movement. According to Miller, when he came up with the idea of burning himself, Quang Duc understood it as an act of promoting Buddhist reforms and defending his Buddhist revival ideals. 

Therefore, to call the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc either pro-Communist, anti-Ngo Dinh Diem, or anti-American intervention would be insufficient. His self-immolation was highly political and was meant to express more than just opposition to any regime. 


[1] Miller, E. (2014). Religious Revival and the Politics of Nation Building: Reinterpreting the 1963 ‘Buddhist crisis’ in South Vietnam. Modern Asian Studies, 49(6), 1903–1962.

[2] Lindsay, J. M. (2012, June 11). TWE Remembers: Thich Quang Duc’s Self-Immolation. Council on Foreign Relations.

[3] Tưởng niệm 50 năm Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức tự thiêu. (2013, May 28).

[4] Vietnam’s Faiths Underlie Rising; Buddhist‐Catholic Disputes Sharpened Under Diem. (1964, September 14). The New York Times.

[5] Joiner, C. A. (1964). South Vietnam’s Buddhist Crisis: Organization for Charity, Dissidence, and Unity. Asian Survey, 4(7), 915–928.

[6] Miller, Religious Revival, 1903–1962.  

[7] Hollingsworth, E. (n.d.). The Church of Ngo: Ngo Dinh Diem’s Personalist Revolution and the Making of Alternative Nationalisms in the Republic of Vietnam, 1954–1963 | MA/MSc in International and World History. Columbia University. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from

On This Day

July 24, 2012: China Establishes Sansha City, Intensifying The Maritime Conflict With Vietnam



Photo credit (from left to right): Str/AFP, Xinhua, Stringer/Reuters. Background: Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

What happened?

On July 24, 2012, China established a prefecture-level city called Sansha City (in Vietnamese: Thành phố Tam Sa) under Hainan Province, the most important strategic location for China to push territorial claims in the South China Sea [1]. 

Sansha City covers 800,000 square miles of China’s nine-dash line map of claimed territories in the South China Sea, and it is 1,700 times the size of New York City, even though it mostly covers seawater. [2] According to China analyst Zachary Haver in a US Naval War College report: “through Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control, China is gradually transforming contested areas of the South China Sea into de facto Chinese territory.” [3] In other words, through the establishment of Sansha City, China is signaling that it is here to stay. 

The establishment of Sansha City has been extremely controversial in Vietnam because the city includes the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which Vietnam also contests as its rightful territory, along with other countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. 

What did Vietnam say? 

As expected, Vietnam did not take the news lightly. In 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said that Vietnam wholeheartedly rejected the “so-called Sansha City” as it violates the sovereignty of Vietnam. [4] 

The presidents of the People’s Committees in Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces, which Vietnam claims govern the Spratly and Paracel Islands, respectively, also had the same talking point. [5] They further affirmed that the two islands are under the administration of Khanh Hoa and Da Nang provinces and not the Sansha City of Hainan Province. 

Territorial conflicts and rising anti-China nationalism

This event was just one among many others that intensified maritime conflict between China and Vietnam. Both countries have tried to establish both legal and historical claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Because of the fierce conflict, many people in Vietnam have developed a unique version of nationalism: anti-China nationalism. 

Such nationalism is rooted in the reality of many Vietnamese who have held a deep-seated Sinophobic resentment towards a millennium of Chinese domination [6]. Still, this nationalism has proved to be more than about China’s military aggression. In fact, anti-China nationalism in Vietnam has been useful in anti-authoritarian mobilizations and call for better governance and democracy. Read more about the nuances around anti-China nationalism in Vietnam here


[1] Li, M. (2019). Hainan Province in China’s South China Sea Policy: What Role Does the Local Government Play? Asian Politics & Policy, 11(4), 623–642. 

[2] Coy, P. (2021, February 19). China Has An 800,000-Square-Mile ‘City’ in the South China Sea. Bloomberg. 

[3] Haver, Z. (2021, January). China Maritime Report No. 12: Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control. U.S. Naval War College. 

[4] M.Q. (2020, October 15). Việt Nam phản đối Trung Quốc mở rộng hoạt động tại cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” Báo Thế giới và Việt Nam. 

[5] Phản đối Trung Quốc lập cái gọi là “thành phố Tam Sa.” (2012, June 24). Tạp Chí Xây Dựng Đảng. 

[6] Lam, V. (2018, June 29). Vietnam: A month of mass protests. Lowy Institute. 

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On This Day

June 21, 1925: Vietnam Revolutionary Press Day



Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Ban Tuyên Giáo Trung Ương, Zing News. Photo credit (background): Báo Giao Thông. Graphic by The Vietnamese Magazine.

What is this day about? 

Almost a century ago, a newspaper called Thanh Nien published its first issue[1]. Prior to the existence of Thanh Nien, other newspapers were existing in Vietnam. But Thanh Nien was not just any newspaper. It was a newspaper founded by Ho Chi Minh – the most important revolutionary figure of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Hence, the day Thanh Nien published its first issue became a day to celebrate “revolutionary reporters and the press” in Vietnam.

This day is still celebrated annually in Vietnam, with articles coming from the state-controlled press commemorating how journalism in Vietnam has “propagated and spread the Party and the government’s paths, as well as reflecting the true will of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.” [2]

Because of the day’s history, it would be a mistake to think of this day as commencing the right of free speech or free journalism in Vietnam. 

How is the state of journalism in Vietnam?

Despite the name “Revolutionary Press Day,” the state of journalism in Vietnam cannot at all be considered “free,” let alone “revolutionary.”

Ranked 175 out of 180 countries by Reporters without Borders [3], the Socialist Republic of Vietnam does not allow freedom of expression or independent journalism. While journalism is usually understood as a tool to “speak truth to power,” journalism in Vietnam is rather a propaganda tool to speak the truth according to power. 

This is because journalism in Vietnam is all state-owned. While “official” journalists in Vietnam are sometimes allowed to report corruption, criticism of the Party is strictly forbidden, and those challenging it could face the consequences.[4] 

Even among the state-owned journalism platforms, if an article is just critical of either the Party or anyone in power, it would most likely be taken down silently. [5] In more extreme cases, the authorities may punish the newspaper itself. For example, the Phu Nu newspaper was suspended for a month last year because it published a critical investigative article about the Sun Group, one of the largest corporations in Vietnam. [6]

This is further evident in the way journalism is taught in higher education. The most famous journalism school in Vietnam, the Academy of Journalism and Communication (Học viện Báo chí và Tuyên truyền), would actually be the “Academy of Journalism and Propaganda,” if the name was translated honestly from Vietnamese to English. Many university students jokingly call this school “a Party university” (trường Đảng), due to the school’s emphasis on the Party’s propaganda training. 

The state of free speech and free journalism in Vietnam is very telling when you look at the very existence of our own organization, which includes The Vietnamese Magazine and Luat Khoa Magazine. The fact is that we cannot work and register in Vietnam, people are blocked from accessing our sites and that we are one of the only remaining independent Vietnamese-run media organizations. One more fact is that other than our directors, Trinh Huu Long and Tran Quynh Vi, all of the organization’s staff writers and editors have to work in the shadows to ensure our own personal safety and the organization’s continuity. 

Since the beginning of the elections in 2021, the state has arrested independent bloggers and journalists almost every week, despite the chaotic situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many independent journalists have been detained. [7] Our own co-founder, Pham Doan Trang, an internationally recognized pro-democracy journalist, has also been arrested. 

Independent journalists are not the only ones arrested by the state. Sometimes, even ordinary Facebook users are detained for critical comments on social media [8]. It is estimated that since the beginning of 2021, at least 21 Vietnamese citizens have been arrested due to activities on social media. 

And there are many other examples of how independent and critical journalism in Vietnam has a very grim future [9]. 

It is puzzling to think about how Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, advocated so much for the right to freedom of speech and journalism to see his successors doing the exact opposite. 

But why does the state have to go to such length to arrest independent journalists? Why is it so willing to damage its human rights records?

It is because the system is so corrupted with power so concentrated in the hands of certain political and economic elites, which VCP leaders know better than anyone else. They also know that if independent journalism is allowed, the people would be better informed about the system’s flaws and failures, and sooner or later, the VCP will lose its monopoly of power as the only ruling party of Vietnam. They know that their un-innovative propaganda strategies cannot compete with honest and scientific arguments that can only be nurtured under independent journalism. They know that they cannot win in a free speech environment. 

So the VCP’s fight with independent journalism is actually a desperate fight to cling to power. Do not let their brand as a “socialist” government fool you. What the VCP is doing against independent journalists is anything but what their founder Ho Chi Minh advocated for during French colonial rule. Their monopoly as the only ruling party is so important that they are willing to arrest, suppress and surveil even the smallest seeds of independent journalism and critical thought. 

This is now an authoritarian Party suppressing independent journalists. And on this day, the Vietnam Revolutionary Press Day, we hope you remember that. 


[1] Những mốc son của nền báo chí cách mạng Việt Nam. (2021, June 21). Báo Tin Tức.

[2] Nguồn gốc và ý nghĩa Ngày Báo chí Cách mạng Việt Nam 21/6. (2020, June 16). Báo Giao Thông.

[3] World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders. (n.d.). Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

[4] Vietnam: State Violence v. Bloggers and Journalists. (n.d.). Reporters Without Borders. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from

[5] Chính, Y. K. (2021, June 21). Nhân ngày nhà báo, gửi lời trân trọng đến những bài báo bị gỡ bỏ. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.

[6] Đình bản 1 tháng báo Phụ Nữ TP.HCM điện tử. (2020, May 28). Tuoi Tre Online.

[7] Rees, S. (2021, May 3). Independent Journalists in Vietnam: The Clampdown Against Critics Continues. The Diplomat.

[8] The Vietnamese Magazine. (2021, June 16). Vietnam Briefing: The Election Results Are In. Here Comes 5 More Years Of Party Domination.

[9] Human Rights Watch. (2020, January 23). World Report 2020: Rights Trends in Vietnam.

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On This Day

June 16, 1954: Ngo Dinh Diem Appointed Prime Minister Of The State Of Vietnam



Photo credit (from left to right): Unknown, Ebay, BBC Vietnamese. Wikimedia Commons (background), Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

The “On This Day” series introduces contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred today in the past.

What happened? 

On this day, 67 years ago, Ngo Dinh Diem was tapped to be the prime minister of the State of Vietnam. His appointer was Bao Dai, the chief of state, who also was the last emperor of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty, which ended before the formation of this regime. 

This event could be considered one of the most significant political developments in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era. It was the foundation of a political entity that would later become a fierce rival to the Communist regime in the north. 

What was the State of Vietnam? 

The State of Vietnam was the predecessor of what would later become the Republic of Vietnam. 

Because of the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the Communist regime in the north launched a massive offensive against the French colonial government[1], the French decided to sign an agreement to transfer their administrative powers to a government headed by a Vietnamese, the former Emperor Bao Dai [2], who was chosen by the French. 

This move by the French colonial administration is called the “Bao Dai solution,” which presented the French and the Americans with an opportunity to retain their influence in the region amid the rising power of the Communists. [3] 

This new State of Vietnam had been  under the French Union since 1949. However, this regime lived a short life as Bao Dai was stripped of power only a few years later by his own appointee as prime minister. 

Who was Ngo Dinh Diem? 

Ngo Dinh Diem is best known for his role as president of the Republic of Vietnam, the regime in the south of Vietnam that ceased to exist when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He was a Catholic politician in a country with a Buddhist majority, which many say was one of the prime reasons for his downfall. 

The Communist regime often portrayed Ngo Dinh Diem as an American puppet who led an imperial regime controlled by the United States. [4] The Communist regime also saw Diem’s rise to power as undemocratic and illegitimate. However, it also unexpectedly ignored the ironic parallels between such complaints compared to North Vietnam’s own pile of undemocratic practices. 

However, many foreign-based scholars agree that Diem was much more complicated as a political figure than how the Communist regime portrayed him. Some even argued that Diem was as concerned with American intervention as the Communists were and attempted to create an alternative anti-colonial movement to the Viet Minh, leading by the Communists.[5] 

Prior to being made president of South Vietnam, Diem held a role that was lesser known: prime minister of the State of Vietnam. 

Diem was appointed because Bao Dai believed that the newly formed State of Vietnam would need American support and that Diem’s Catholic and anti-Communist background would be an appealing advantage. This was done despite Bao Dai’s alleged awareness that Diem was fond of Cuong De, a Nguyen Dynasty’s royal descendent who had challenged Bao Dai’s legitimacy. [6] 

Later, Diem would overthrow Bao Dai in a referendum in October 1955, which designated Diem as the new head of state and established the Republic of Vietnam. Though the transition was not violent, it did not happen without smear campaigns against Bao Dai, who was viewed as a collaborator with the French colonialists.[7] 

This is not to praise Diem and his administration. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus seems to agree that Diem’s referendum in October 1955 was staged and undemocratic [8], and many have pointed out the shortcomings of his administration. The shocking self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was one illustration of the Diem regime’s failure to handle religious affairs, making many Buddhists feel discriminated against compared to Catholics. [9]

However, it is important to remember that Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician and leader of Vietnam in an important historical chapter, and someone who remains a crucial historical figure to study and discuss. To completely demonize him, and to only study him from the viewpoint of the “winning side,” is to ignore a chapter of Vietnamese history that is scarcely discussed in an equitable manner. 


[1] Battle of Dien Bien Phu. (2019, September 23). History.

[2] French Indochina/Vietnam (1941–1954). (n.d.). University of Central Arkansas | Political Science. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from

[3] Hess, G. R. (1978). The First American Commitment in Indochina: The Acceptance of the “Bao Dai Solution”, 1950. Diplomatic History (Oxford University Press), 2(4), 331–350.

[4] Nghiem, K. H. (n.d.). Khái quát về Việt Nam lưu trữ Cộng hòa (1955–1975), Phần 1. Faculty of Archival Studies | University of Social Sciences & Humanities. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from

[5] Miller, E. (2004). Vision, Power and Agency: The Ascent of Ngô Đình Diệm, 1945–54. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(3), 433–458.

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Cuong De | Vietnamese prince. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from

[7] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy: South Vietnam’s 1955 Referendum to Depose Bao Dai. Diplomatic History, 30(4), 671–703.

[8] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy, 671-703. 

[9] Nguyen, S. (2021, June 11). June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc. The Vietnamese Magazine.

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