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.
On the morning of June 11, 1963, an elder Buddhist monk emerged from more than 300 monks protesting on a busy street of Saigon. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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.
 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. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0026749x12000935
 Lindsay, J. M. (2012, June 11). TWE Remembers: Thich Quang Duc’s Self-Immolation. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/twe-remembers-thich-quang-ducs-self-immolation
 Tưởng niệm 50 năm Hòa thượng Thích Quảng Đức tự thiêu. (2013, May 28). vov.vn. https://vov.vn/doi-song/tuong-niem-50-nam-hoa-thuong-thich-quang-duc-tu-thieu-263846.vov
 Vietnam’s Faiths Underlie Rising; Buddhist‐Catholic Disputes Sharpened Under Diem. (1964, September 14). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/09/14/archives/vietnams-faiths-underlie-rising-buddhistcatholic-disputes-sharpened.html
 Joiner, C. A. (1964). South Vietnam’s Buddhist Crisis: Organization for Charity, Dissidence, and Unity. Asian Survey, 4(7), 915–928. https://doi.org/10.1525/as.1964.4.7.01p1727l
 Miller, Religious Revival, 1903–1962.
 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 https://worldhistory.columbia.edu/content/church-ngo-ngo-dinh-diems-personalist-revolution-and-making-alternative-nationalisms