March 27, 2023

By Ahmet Abdulaziz….

The problem with human memory is that there are certain events which we do not forget, throughout our whole lives. We remember that particular event, but at times forget the names of the main character of the event.

Way back in the memory line, I remember a newspaper photo of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burning himself to death in Saigon. That was 11th June 1963, and Vietnam was passing through a very tough period of her history. A period when Vietnam was literally, politically and physically divided as North and South Vietnam, and human lives were being lost every day due to armed conflict, involving physical and/or proxy presence of the Chinese, Russians, French, Americans and the Communists and non-communist Vietnamese.

America backed South Vietnamese President, who was Catholic, and had taken an anti-Buddhist stance in his policies. The Buddhists were at the receiving end constantly, and were mostly carrying out peaceful anti-government rallies. In one of these anti-government rallies due to tough measures of the South Vietnamese Government, some Buddhists were killed.

Following this event, Thich Quang Duc, a 65 years old Vietnamese Buddhist monk, decided to register his peaceful opposition against the unjust policies of the South Vietnamese government. He decided to burn himself himself to death, as a form of peaceful protest.

The date was 11th June 1963. A day earlier the foreign journalists in Saigon were secretly informed by the monks that something serious was going to happen the next day. Most of the journalists did not pay much attention to this message, and did not go to the place mentioned, except David Halberstam of the New York Times and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press.

The event occured in the centre of Saigon city, just opposite the Cambodian Embassy. Lots of Buddhist monks had already encircled the place. Thich Quang Duc, had arrived in a car, with two young monks, who placed a cushion for him in the middle of the crossroads. There he sat on the cushion, and his fellow monks poured gasoline on him. He said his prayers and then torched himself. As reported everywhere, that was an unforgettable scene. The people gathered there were stunned as they watched a human being burning himself. It took about ten long minutes until most parts of his body became ash, but he remained seated, unmoved, without saying a word.

That was one particular incident of its own type. Though some more monks also burnt themselves to death in the following periods, however the self immolation incident of Thich Quang Duc, made its own mark everywhere.

The photo of the incident, taken by Malcolm Browne, remained one of the most important photos in the journalistic history, and brought a Pulitzer Prize to him.  John F. Kennedy, the then President of USA, was quoted saying in reference to this photo, ” No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”.

David Halberstam, of The New York Times who carried out this story, wrote,

” I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him”.

Though there are many more photographs which generated immense sensation round the world,  I think this particular photo of Thich Quang Duc, burning himself to death on 11th June 1963, is the one and only of its kind.

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