10. Thich Quang-Duc
As the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing in America, on the other side of the world in Vietnam, the United States was beginning to involve itself in a war that would devastate the whole country. A whole entry for this list could be written about the role of anti-war protests in ending that war, but instead our focus is on one of the defining moments of the start of the conflict.
While Gandhi and Dr. King used non-violent civil disobedience to make their stands, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc used self-inflicted violence to raise awareness of his cause, creating a lasting image perfectly designed to capture the attention of the world’s media.
Thich Quang Duc was a Buddhist monk and as such, totally opposed to violence of any kind. The vast majority of Vietnamese were Buddhists, but the President, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic and was widely seen to favor Catholics in positions of office and prominence within the military and civil service. While government events often saw the Vatican flag fly alongside that of Vietnam, Buddhist symbols were banned and when Buddhist activists protested against the government, nine people were killed. The Buddhist hierarchy decided that something had to be done and Quang Duc, a leading monk, volunteered.
Media organizations, particularly from the United States, who were the largest backers of the Diem regime, were informed that something was to happen outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon on June 10. As Duc sat in the traditional position of meditation, he was doused in petrol and set alight. He quickly burned to death, but not before photographer Malcolm Browne had taken what would go on to become one of the most iconic photographs of all time.
Duc left a note that explained the reasoning behind his protested, stating simply: “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.”
It had the intended effect. The self-immolation, combined with coordinated protests, lead to the US increasing pressure on Duc and eventually, to the Buddhist community receiving concessions from the regime. Thich Quang Duc instantly became a revered figure among Buddhists: his heart, which was never burned in the incident and then survived a second cremation, has become a relic for Vietnamese Buddhists and the then US President John F Kennedy remarked that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”