Using their bodies like a lamp for help

“…Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning 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 even to think…”

On the 11th June 1963, a Buddhist priest came to the intersection of Phan Dình Phùng Street and Lê Van Duyêt Street in a light blue Austin Westminster. He stepped out of the car and assumed the lotus position whilst fellow monks poured gasoline all over him. He remained in position whilst the fuel permeated his robes and they set fire to his body. In absolute stillness and calm he sat on the road until he was no more than a shadow on the floor, unrecognisable as a human being except, perhaps, by the charred bones which the flames revealed from underneath his skin.

There was no warning issued to the government immediately beforehand, no call to change their policy, nor were the public warned to avoid those streets, and so it came as a complete surprise to all but those closest with Quang Duc. No conditions were presented which, if satisfied, would have prevented his death, nor was there to be any dialogue between the dogmatic and overly conservative regime of Ngo Dinh Diem who was pro-Catholic and anti-everything else. The South Vietnamese Army had suppressed the Buddhist majority by prohibiting the flying of religious flags on festival days. The pouring of chemicals on the heads of protesting Buddhists in Hué was the final straw, a grotesquely underhand means to prevent religious expression, and the instigator for what came to be known as the Buddhist Crisis. Quang Duc’s sacrifice therefore came in the context of extreme political unrest with the smell of napalm in the air and a despotic and totalitarian leader antagonising the majority of the South Vietnamese population, 90% of which were Buddhist. Quang Duc’s self-immolation must be seen in this context in order to be understood – people needed to know about the tyranny of South Vietnam, about the restrictions on Buddhist rights, and so Quang Duc gave his body for precisely that reason.

Committing suicide as a means of protest is not a contemporary method. It is, however, perhaps the most extreme form imaginable. It seems logical that the more painful the means of killing oneself, the more potent the protest and the more powerful the message. For example, the act of seppuku which involves the disembowelling of oneself to ensure a honourable death is powerful exactly because it sounds so painful. There is an enduring element of shock which cannot be ignored. However, perhaps the most important and most powerful aspect of the act comes with the implicit acceptance that it is a lethal performance; driving a sword into the stomach and pulling downwards will almost always lead to death and that is entirely inescapable. Death is, therefore, inevitable. And this is where Quang Duc’s self-immolation becomes relevant; a willingness to die for a cause and the sacrificing of one’s life for that cause are fundamentally different because in the first instance, the hunger striker or the protester in the street accepts that death is a possibility, but probably a remote one. Dying is not the endgame here – in the eyes of the campaigner outside the Houses of Parliament, it would be much better not to die and to experience the change that they have called for. Thus, the undisputed power of Quang Duc’s self-immolation lies in its sacrificial aspect. He recognised that, in a totalitarian government, the inspiration for change would come only when people felt disturbed enough to demand it. Quang Duc knew that he needed to die for the Buddhists to be free and that is what his life ended for. The fact that we feel unnerved by the photographs of this testifies to his success. A man sat in statuesque stillness immersed in flames whilst his flesh turned to ashes has an enduring potency.

So when the fire engine trying to extinguish Quang Duc as he sat in apparent nirvana was obstructed by fellow monks, and when eventually his organs failed and his body collapsed, amidst the crying and screams and the looks of absolute despair, Quang Duc had achieved success. Malcolm Browne’s photograph caught the front page of almost every newspaper across the Western world and the instinctive repulsion caused by simply looking at the image left nobody unmoved. The Buddhists of South Vietnam now had a global audience. But the implicit point remains the important one – Quang Duc self-immolated because otherwise the injustices that he experienced would go unpunished. There are innumerable ways of protesting against a perceived political injustice, be it through occupying public spaces or marching through the city en masse. But the spontaneity of Quang Duc made it far more memorable than any other. It would undeniably have diminished the credibility of the act if there had been a warning beforehand, if there had been posters on the walls of the city or a ceremonious speech beforehand, demanding change and criticising the government. The silence surrounding this particular protest is deeply unsettling and this is one of the reasons that we are left so affected by David Halberstam’s account of it. “Human beings burn surprisingly quickly”, he remarked. And so the fire engine didn’t need to be stalled for too long before Quang Duc was no more than cooked flesh and blackened bones, his shaved head cracked like dried earth under the desert sun. It was over relatively quickly, and yet by the next morning he had become an icon.

Fast forward even a couple of months and the impact of Quang Duc’s protest is clear to see. The Diem regime was overthrown at the start of November 1963 with US support after the photograph of the burning monk in Saigon was broadcast. But Quang Duc also served as a grisly inspiration to some. In India, a Tamil labourer set himself on fire in opposition to the official implementation of Hindi as India’s official language. A Quaker, Norman Morrison, self-immolated outside the Pentagon in protest against the war in Vietnam. Roger LaPorte chose to do so outside the United Nations; Jan Palach saw that the Prague Spring was losing momentum and decided that his body had to be the fuel to inspire action; Lynette Phillips declared that the “inhumanity, injustice, and irrationality prevalent in our society” that she saw disturbed her to such an extent that she promptly doused herself in gasoline and lit a match outside of the United Nations in Geneva. Since 2009, 136 monks have self-immolated in Tibet as protest against the Chinese authorities and their “cultural genocide”. In all of these one can see the macabre influence of Quang Duc; a grim respect for his bravery, a cynical acceptance that even the most flagrant crimes can be ignored and that some problems can only be illuminated by the light of a human torch.

And so in 2015, we inhabit a world which is difficult to understand, which feels somewhat incoherent – on the one hand, there is the remarkable charity and aid work which commits billions of dollars to helping those in need and which saves lives. There are stories which touch us beyond comprehension – Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head for being a girl and going to school and yet survived; Kailash Satyarthi who lost friends and suffered broken bones to rescue children from abuse in India, where those most in need are perennially ignored. And yet, there is an alarming apathy to certain issues. It can be seen in the way the flooding in Kashmir, which has left so many dislocated and without basic resources, has been totally ignored by Western media. It can also be seen in the pathetically limp reaction to the outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa. This feels like a very strange, almost surreal era in which problems can be eliminated simply by unfollowing an account on Twitter and it is sometimes hard to escape the idea that protesting as previously conceived is losing its power, that it is becoming increasingly unlikely that we are heard even if the numbers are great. The suffocation of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong is a case in point and we are entering a new year in a strange atmosphere. Certainly, many more people will die to free Tibet, to depose Assad in Syria, or in the name of justice for Michael Brown or Eric Garner. The question is whether or not they will be heard, or whether the next great tragedy of our times will relegate the previous one to a subordinate status as a less problematic problem. There is always the danger of glamorising the past when the present seems toxic, but hope at least can be found in the innate capacity for humans to demand more and demand better. With that in mind there remains the chance that dissenting voices will be listened to, and that change can be realised. It would be best if that was possible without the smell of gasoline and burnt corpses.

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Boris Linnebank is part of the Editorial team at Entitled Magazine. He was born in London to an Indian mother and a Dutch father. Boris loves reading, running, going to the cinema, and all sorts of music. He plays the saxophone badly and the bass guitar even worse, but loves both. He can, and will, do the splits and is a little bit obsessed with Russian literature.