The Story Behind the Iconic Burning Monk Photograph

Thích Quảng Đức became famous when he burnt himself to death. This Buddhist monk from Vietnam was doing this as a show of his hatred of oppression.  The oppression he was opposing was the South Vietnamese’s pro-catholic policies and their laws that discriminated against Buddhists, specifically the fact that the regime burnt the Buddhist flag two days after their displaying of crosses in a public ceremony.

The Buddhists responded to the flag banning by flying raising their flag on Vesak and then proceeded to march on the government broadcasting station.  The government sent in forces and nine protestors were killed when the government forces fired into the crowd.

The Photographer

South Vietnam was mainly Buddhist and resentment had grown to such an extent that a coup was led by those who wanted a leader who would not discriminate against the large majority of Buddhists.  John F Kennedy said this in response to the photograph ““No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”.  On 11 June 1963 Malcolm Browne captured this event and his photo caused an emotional response throughout the world.

US correspondents who also surely enjoyed AFL Premiership betting and other activities while waiting for a good story were alerted that there was something important going to happen outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon, but most of the journalists did not take notice of the message.

Malcolm Browne was the bureau chief in Saigon for the Associated Press at that time and he was one of a few journalists who showed up on the day. Together with about 350 monks and nuns, Duc marched against the Diem government and their discrimination of Buddhists.

The Event

The self-immolation took place between Phan Đinh Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street, which was just around the corner from the then Presidential Palace.  Duc arrived in a car with two other Buddhist monks and a cushion was placed in the road.

The protestors gathered around Duc who sat in the traditional Buddhist lotus position while another monk poured petrol over him. While this was happening Duc rotated wooden prayer beads and recited the homage to Amitābha Buddha (Nam mô A di đà Phật) and then struck a match and dropped it on himself.  His body erupted in flames, which burnt his flesh and robes, and black smoke emerged from his burning body.

He had left a letter before he died where he called to the president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to have compassion towards the people of Vietnam and to effect religious equality.  He also called to all Buddhists to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.

It took 10 minutes for his body to be completely burned when it fell backwards.  When the flames had died down the monks covered his burnt body with yellow robes and tried to put Duc into a coffin, but he would not fit, as his limbs could not be straightened. They carried him with his arms hanging out to a pagoda in central Saigon.