In Saigon's huge Xa Loi Pagoda, Buddhist monks and nuns were holding a 48-hour hunger strike against the regime of South Viet Nam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. Expecting trouble, police sealed off nearby streets with barbed wire. To prevent a repetition of the ritualistic suicide last month, when a protesting Buddhist monk burned himself to death on a Saigon street corner, two fire trucks were on hand.
Suddenly, about 500 saffron-robed Buddhist priests, laymen and women emerged from a nearby alley and started to run toward the pagoda to join their fasting fellow-Buddhists. Stymied by wire and police, the demonstrators sat down in the middle of the street.
Riot squads arrived. Armed with a walkie-talkie radio, two sport-shirted American C.I.A. men delivered a running commentary on events to headquarters. A monk with a portable loudspeaker repeated: "We have been deceived many times and we no longer have any faith in the regime." Government secret police in civilian clothes yelled back that the Buddhists were being exploited by the Communists.
Then the police charged the peaceful seated crowds, causing one of the ugliest scenes in South Viet Nam's three-months-old Buddhist crisis.
At Gunpoint. With rifle butts, clubs and tommy-gun clips, the cops battered the demonstrators. Women who had fallen to the pavement in the first police rush were savagely kicked. A young girl had her head split open with a carbine butt, and as blood streamed into her eyes, she was carted away in a police van. From the windows of a brothel, girls shouted insults at the police until forced inside at machine-gun point.
Throughout South Viet Nam, government forces crushed Buddhist demonstrations with similar violence, arrested nearly 300 marchers in Saigon alone, following orders to "use any means" to disperse Buddhist demonstrations. Top U.S. embassy people in Saigon were "shocked and disgusted" by the Diem government's action. One monk delivered a protest note to the embassy, urging the U.S. to force Diem to relent; U.S. Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting telephoned Vietnamese officials and got assurances that the man would not be molested. But no sooner had the monk left than secret police agents tried to spirit him away in a waiting taxi. The priest fought them off and raced back toward the U.S. embassy. A U.S. official dragged him to safety through the door as a husky Marine guard peeled a Vietnamese cop from the priest's back.
Morality Crusade. Ironically, the crisis involves one of the world's most docile religions. Yet, in a sense, that very quality makes Buddhism a problem.