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June 11, 2020

The Burning Monk: The Story Behind the Shocking and Iconic Image of Thich Quang Duc Immolating Himself on a Saigon Street, 1963

Malcolm Browne was 30 years old when he arrived in Saigon on Nov. 7, 1961, as AP’s first permanent correspondent there. From the start, Browne was filing the kind of big stories that would win him the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1964. But today, he is primarily remembered for a photograph taken on June 11, 1963, depicting the dignified yet horrific death by fiery suicide of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức.

Malcolm Browne, Saigon correspondent for the Associated Press, poses in front of his photo of a monk’s fiery suicide after the image was selected as the world’s best news picture of the year at the Seventh World Press Photo contest in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP)

On 10 June 1963, U.S. correspondents were informed that “something important” would happen the following morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Most of the reporters disregarded the message, since the Buddhist crisis had at that point been going on for more than a month, and the next day only a few journalists turned up, including David Halberstam of The New York Times and Malcolm Browne, the Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press (AP). Quảng Đức arrived as part of a procession that had begun at a nearby pagoda. Around 350 monks and nuns marched in two phalanxes, preceded by an Austin Westminster sedan, carrying banners printed in both English and Vietnamese. They denounced the Diệm government and its policy towards Buddhists, demanding that it fulfill its promises of religious equality. Another monk offered himself, but Quảng Đức’s seniority prevailed.

The act occurred at the intersection of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street, a few blocks southwest of the Presidential Palace. 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 petrol can. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Quảng Đức calmly sat down in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. A colleague emptied the contents of the petrol container over Quảng Đức’s head. Quảng Đức rotated a string of wooden prayer beads and recited the words Nam mô A Di Đà Phật (“Homage to Amitābha 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.

Quảng Đức’s last words before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he had left:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
The spectators were mostly stunned into silence, but some wailed and several began praying. Many of the monks and nuns, as well as some shocked passersby, prostrated themselves before the burning monk. Even some of the policemen, who had orders to control the gathered crowd, prostrated before him.

In English and Vietnamese, a monk repeated into a microphone: “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” After approximately 10 minutes, Quảng Đức’s body was fully immolated and it eventually toppled backwards onto its back. Once the fire subsided, a group of monks covered the smoking corpse with yellow robes, picked it up and tried to fit it into a coffin, but the limbs could not be straightened and one of the arms protruded from the wooden box as he was carried to the nearby Xá Lợi Pagoda in central Saigon. Outside the pagoda, students unfurled bilingual banners which read: “A Buddhist priest burns himself for our five requests.”

By 1:30 pm (13:30), around 1,000 monks had congregated inside to hold a meeting, while outside a large crowd of pro-Buddhist students had formed a human barrier around it. The meeting soon ended and all but 100 monks slowly left the compound. Nearly 1,000 monks, accompanied by laypeople, returned to the cremation site. The police lingered nearby. At around 6:00 pm, thirty nuns and six monks were arrested for holding a prayer meeting on the street outside Xá Lợi. The police encircled the pagoda, blocking public passage and giving observers the impression that an armed siege was imminent by donning riot gear.

In an interview with Time, Browne detailed how these photos came about. He said he had cultivated contacts with monks who had become active in opposing the government.
“Along about springtime (1963), the monks began to hint that they were going to pull off something spectacular by way of protest ...

“The monks were telephoning the foreign correspondents in Saigon to warn them that something big was going to happen. Most of the correspondents were kind of bored with that threat after a while and tended to ignore it. I felt that they were certainly going to do something, that they were not just bluffing, so it came to be that I was really the only Western correspondent that covered the fatal day.”
Browne’s photo of Thich Quang Đuc’s self-immolation, during which he remained perfectly still. “I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting and that protected me from the horror of the thing.” (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Browne’s photos and his reporting pointed to the complicated nature of the Vietnam war that would last for more than a decade and cause great divisions in the U.S.

Browne wrote a memoir in 1993, called Muddy Boots and Red Socks, saying that he “did not go to Vietnam harboring any opposition to America’s role in the Vietnamese civil war.” However, he went on to say that the “shadow war” carried out by the Kennedy administration changed his views.

After leaving the AP, Browne went on to work for the Times for three decades as a foreign correspondent and a science writer. He died on Monday August 27, 2012, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.

All pictures taken on June 11, 1963 Buddhist leaders warned Browne that a major protest would take place in Saigon. Browne arrived at the Buddist pagoda where the protest was being staged to find monks and nuns already chanting. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Monks and nuns recited funeral chants before the demonstration. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

The Buddhist protestors walked from the pagoda to central Saigon. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Monks and nuns formed a circle around a Saigon intersection. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Buddhist monk Quang Duc emerged from a car and sat in the center of the intersection while a younger monk poured gasolin over him. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

It was every bit as bad as I could have expected,” said Browne of watching the monk burn. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Other monks and nuns looked on as Quang Duc burned to death. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Quang Duc’s self-immolation was done to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

Quang Duc’s remains before they were moved to a coffin and carried to a nearby pagoda by his fellow monks and nuns. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

A monk prays over the Quang Duc’s remains. (Malcolm Browne–AP)

After the immolation, monks prevent a fire truck from approaching the scene. (Malcolm Browne–AP)


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