The burning monk
Malcolm Browne


On the evening of June 10, 1963 Malcolm Browne, a 30-year-old photographer from New York who had been sent to Vietnam by his employer Associated Press to cover the war, received a call telling him to be at a particular intersection in Saigon the next morning as something important was going to happen.

He was there waiting the following morning, along with David Halberstam, a reporter from The New York Times, when a car pulled up and three or four monks got out. One, Thich Quang Duc, sat on the ground in the lotus position with a box of matches in his hand while the others proceeded to pour gasoline over him from jerry cans.

Thich Quang Duc then struck a match and instantly made himself and Malcolm Browne world famous. In contrast to the wailing of the people watching, as he burned he never made a sound nor moved a muscle, such was his self-discipline.

The Buddhist monk had discussed his intentions with his superiors at the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue and with members of the Buddhist community. His protest was designed to draw attention to the harsh treatment that Buddhists were receiving from the US-backed Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

The United States had helped put Diem into the position of ruler of South Vietnam in the belief that he would be the most likely candidate to prevent it from falling under communist control.

However, Diem was a Catholic and when he took control he ignored the advice of the US and made many decision that upset the predominantly Buddhist population.

Thich Quang Duc had written to Diem asking him to end the repression of Buddhism, to stop detaining monks and give them the right to practice and spread their religion and to lift the ban on them flying their traditional Buddhist flag, but had not received a reply. This final act followed several weeks of deep meditation.

The New York Times didnít publish the photograph the following morning but the next day when it was seen by US President Kennedy it is believed that the president made the decision that Diem should go.

In the following months five other Buddhist monks followed Thich Quang Ducís example and killed themselves and although they were religious statements they were also seen as political acts committed to draw attention to the injustices being perpetrated by a puppet government of the American imperialists against the South Vietnamese people.

By December of that year Diemís regime had been overthrown and he had been replaced by Nguyen Van Thieu, Kennedy had been assassinated and American public opinion had swung against the war.

Malcolm Browneís decision not to intervene and prevent Thich Quang Ducís self-immolation haunted him for many years. He felt that in those seconds he could have saved the monkís life but he chose to take photographs instead.

Perhaps by doing so and helping to show the world what was happening in Vietnam Malcolm Browne, in his small way, hastened the end of the war thereby saving many other lives at the cost of Thich Quang Ducís.

Of course, Thich Quang Duc must be given far more credit for changing the worldís perception of the Vietnam War, after all, his was the ultimate sacrifice.

It is said that the only part of Thich Quang Ducís body that wasnít burnt was his heart, even after his body was subjected to ritual cremation, and it is kept at the Reserve Bank of Vietnam as a holy relic.

These photographs won Malcolm Browne a Pulitzer Prize in 1964. He died in 2012 at the age of 81.


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