South Viet Nam: The Light That Failed

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In the Hour of the Tiger just before dawn, when Buddhist monks and nuns rise from their pallets to make their first obeisance, a portly, 55-year-old nun named Thich Nu Thanh Quang appeared in front of the Dieu De Pagoda in South Viet Nam's ancient capital of Hue. Removing her wooden-soled sandals, she sat down on the cement. While a Buddhist photographer took pictures, fellow Buddhists reverently emptied the contents of an American five-gallon jerrican of gasoline over her. She struck a safety match, and flames roared 20 feet into the air, until only her two out stretched hands were visible.

It was a nightmarish repetition of the immolations of 1963, when eight Buddhists burned themselves to death protesting President Ngo Dinh Diem's anti-Buddhist repressions. At that time the monks were playing on a religious chord that brought a dramatic response in the largely Buddhist nation. This time the immolations were naked political power plays, inspired if not condoned by militant Monk Thich Tri Quang in Hue. While the flames were still flickering over the nun's charred body, Tri Quang summoned the press to make clear his grievance: Premier Ky's successful suppression of the Buddhist-inspired rebellion in nearby Danang, a "crime" against Buddhists equal to the "crime of Hiroshima." Moreover, he said, it had been "masterminded by the United States President."

Tragic & Unnecessary. It was the kind of demagoguery that Buddhist zealots understood. Only a few hours later in Saigon, Laywoman Ho Thi Thieu, 58, set herself afire as a protest against "the inhuman actions of Generals Thieu and Ky, henchmen of the Americans." A monk in the resort city of Dalat followed suit the next day. By week's end, nine men and women had died in fiery antigovernment, anti-American protests, leaving notes written in blood—even letters addressed to President Johnson. Replied the President in his Memorial Day address in Arlington (see THE NATION): "This quite unnecessary loss of life only obscures the progress that is being made toward a constitutional government."

Tri Quang's response to that was another press conference. "If I were an American," he railed, thrusting his jaw forward like an emaciated Mussolini, "I would be ashamed of the President for this statement that the immolations are useless." But in point of fact, unlike 1963 the grisly suicides thus far have proved largely useless in advancing Tri Quang's campaign to topple the Ky government. The reason: the great majority of Vietnamese Buddhist laymen are clearly unconvinced that the immolations are either justified or necessary, and horror has given way to exasperation and even ennui in a nation accustomed to violent death. "The people look the other way," explained one Vietnamese last week, "because the monks do not have a just cause now. They did in 1963." Nor have the stage-managed martyrs produced the waves of shock in the U.S. that rolled across the press and public in 1963, generating pressure that persuaded Washington to abandon Diem.

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