What could be the most extreme but nonviolent form of protest that one could do to hopefully bring your message out there for as many people, especially those in power, to be heard? Of course, some would probably conduct a rally out on the streets? But, in this modern time, perhaps they could create and spread an online petition, something that could easily reach many people all over the globe.

In 1963, during the Vietnam War, one Buddhist monk decided to do something more than those when he protested against the government for the discrimination the Buddhists were receiving.

Discontent for the Biased Government

Vietnam is, no doubt, a Buddhist country. From as early as the first or second century CE, Buddhism had been practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese from the Indian subcontinent or China. During the Vietnam War, the majority of the country practiced Buddhism as their religion, around 70 to 90 percent. However, then-president Ngo Dinh Diem was a member of the Catholic minority in the country, which should not have been an issue until he decided to set discriminatory policies in favor of the Catholics in terms of public service and military promotions. He also had the same bias regarding land allocation, business arrangements, and tax concessions. As a result, officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) started converting to Catholicism, worried about their military prospects.

Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem. (Department of Defense. Department of the Air Force. NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-342-AF-18302USAFCropping by User: PFHLai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When weapons were distributed to village self-defense militias, those who were Buddhists were denied receiving firearms, and Buddhists in the army were also denied promotion unless they converted to Roman Catholicism. Buddhists would also need official permission first to conduct public Buddhist activities.

Meanwhile, Catholic people were benefiting from the president’s bias: Some priests ran their private armies used to loot, shell, and demolish pagodas in some areas. Although unofficially, Roman Catholics were exempted from corvee labor, something that all citizens were obliged to perform. Aids sent by the United States were also disproportionately distributed to most Catholic villages. The white and gold flag of the Vatican was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam, and in 1959, Diem dedicated the country to the Virgin Mary.

The peak of the discontent was when in early May, the Buddhists were banned from flying the Buddhist flag in Hue on Vesak, which was the birthday of Gautama Buddha. Days before that, Catholics were encouraged to raise their Vatican flag during a celebration for Diem’s elder brother, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc.

A large crowd of Buddhists gathered and marched on the government station to protest the ban, defying the government order by flying their Buddhist flags on the Buddhist holy day of Vesak. In response, the government forces open fired into the crowd and killed nine people. However, Diem did not take responsibility and instead blamed the Viet Cong. That prompted Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc to do his extreme act of protest.

Day of Protest

On June 10, 1963, US correspondents were told that something important would happen the following day on the road just outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. The Buddhist crisis, at that time, had been going on for a month, so most reporters disregarded the message. The next day, only a few journalists turned up, David Halberstam of The New York Times and Saigon Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, Malcolm Browne, who took the photos.