Vietnam’s Influential Buddhist Leader Thich Tri Quang: A Reporter Looks Back

A commentary by Dan Southerland
vietnam-monk.jpg A Buddhist monk stands next to a banner with a picture of monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire on a busy Saigon street corner in 1963, at Quoc Tu pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City on the 55th anniversary of the self-immolation, June 3, 2018.

The death of Thich Tri Quang, Vietnam’s once most powerful monk, at age 95 on Nov. 8, brings back memories of a Buddhist movement that shook South Vietnam in the 1960s.

My most vivid memory comes from a time of protests in Saigon led by Tri Quang and other monks at a pagoda located in the then Vietnamese capital. I was working as a reporter for United Press International (UPI) at the time and was assigned to drive in the news agency’s minimoke and get as close to the pagoda and the protests as I could.

I must have been a bit crazy or overly tired at the time. I drove the minimoke past police checkpoints without stopping at them in order to get near the pagoda as quickly as possible.

An editor asked me one day to take a newly arrived UPI reporter with me to look at what was happening. The reporter later told me that he was concerned as we passed the checkpoints whether we would make it back safely to our office near the Saigon waterfront. The minimoke had no side panels, so it would have been easy for the police to drag us out of it.

At one point, the police detained me and kept me overnight behind barbed wire. Fortunately, no one was traveling with me on that occasion. And I wasn’t that uncomfortable. The police gave me a stool to sit on, and I was released the next morning. During all of this, if I recall correctly, I met Thich Tri Quang once and then only briefly.

In 1968, still working for UPI, I covered clashes between the South Vietnamese Army and Marines on one side and on the other Buddhists and students who were leading a rebellion in the central Vietnamese cities of Hue and Da Nang. A story of mine from Da Nang that was published by the London Daily Telegraph on May 21, 1968, says that four civilians died during the clashes. But with the Army firing directly into the ranks of protesters, the death toll in the end was probably higher than four.

Buddhist monks first made front-page news in the United States on June 11, 1963, when a monk named Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death on a Saigon street to protest the alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

On Nov. 1, 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown by South Vietnamese Army officers who disagreed with his handling of both the Buddhist unrest and an ongoing Viet Cong insurgency. The U.S. Embassy was aware of the coup plot but did nothing to try to stop it. Diem was arrested and executed along with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Their bodies were found in the back of a military truck.

For several years following Diem’s overthrow, South Vietnam was ruled by unstable military regimes.

Following an election in 1967, Nguyen Van Thieu, an army general, became the head of a military junta as president alongside Nguyen Cao Ky, a former Vietnamese air force chief who served first as prime minister and then as vice president.

Thich Tri Quang had been a critic of the Thieu regime. He focused on corruption in the government and its repression of political opponents.

In recalling Tri Quang, I’m also reminded of South Vietnam’s diverse religious landscape. While some people might think of Vietnam as a largely Buddhist country, I’m reminded by my old friend Tom Fox, a Roman Catholic, that the largest number of Vietnamese were actually ancestor worshipers.

As Tom Fox explains, “Vietnamese are fundamentally ancestor worshipers. This is the most common religion, although it doesn’t neatly fit into a larger world religion.”

“I would think that 50 to 65 percent are of Buddhist background,” he said in answer to an email query from me. “Religion is layered in Vietnam. The southerners are more Daoist. Central Vietnamese are more Buddhist. Catholics are in north, center, and south.

As a reporter for United Press International in the late 1960s, I wrote a number of stories about Buddhist protests against the South Vietnamese government.

But I never managed to get an interview with Thich Tri Quang, the most famous of the activist Buddhist monks. Interviews with Tri Quang were rare.

In the absence of in-depth interviews explaining his views, Tri Quang found himself being described as mysterious, a demagogue, and a behind-the-scenes manipulator.

Then, in late May of 1966, South Vietnam’s Premier Ky accused Thich Tri Quang, the most powerful of the anti-government monks, of being a Communist.

There’s no doubt that the Communist-led Viet Cong tried to infiltrate the Buddhist movement, just as they did every institution throughout South Vietnam, but there’s no evidence that Tri Quang was a Communist.

U.S. Embassy officials had many contacts with Tri Quang over the years, and that was no secret. Based on numerous cables related to their meetings with him which have now been declassified, Tri Quang was independent-minded but also in favor of a quick end to the Vietnam War. He criticized corruption as well as Roman Catholic influence in the Vietnamese government.

South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu was a Catholic, but Ky considered himself a Buddhist.

Scholars at the Cambridge University Press, drawing on extensive archival evidence of Tri Quang’s conversations with American officials, concluded that Thich Tri Quang was in fact strongly anti-Communist and “quite receptive to the use of American military power against North Vietnam and against China.”

But Tri Quang was also reported to be concerned that the military regimes that followed Ngo Dinh Diem’s overthrow were “hostile to Buddha and incapable of leading the struggle against the Communists to a successful conclusion.”

Tri Quang was quoted by The New York Times in 1963 as saying that “I, like all educated Buddhists, do not like communism because it is atheistic. But I fear it is coming here because this government is unpopular and always seems to do the wrong thing.”

The ‘Buddhist Crisis’ of 1963

How did the so-called Buddhist Crisis begin?

As the writer John Prados explains in his book The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, an incident occurred in the spring of 1963 in the city of Hue in central Vietnam that reflected Buddhist-Catholic tensions and helped to drive more conservative Buddhists into a closer alliance with activists like Tri Quang.

Early in May of 1963, the Catholic bishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc, who was President’s Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, was celebrating his 25th anniversary jubilee, and Catholics paraded through the streets carrying religious flags. President Diem had imposed laws against anyone else bearing other flags.

But on May 8, the Buddhists celebrated the 2,507th birthday of Buddha and attempted to carry their religious flag.

Ngo Dinh Canh, another of Diem’s brothers, who was the Thua Thien province chief, meanwhile ordered police and army units to break up a demonstration of some 10,000 Buddhists who marched on the Hue City radio station after Thich Tri Quang was denied the opportunity to broadcast an anniversary message to Buddhists.

Troops fired on the Buddhists, and an armored car crushed some of them. Eight people died.

According to Prados, this disaster in Hue led to Diem government intransigence but also outraged Buddhists, who then mounted more demonstrations, leading to a cycle of protest, repression, and mobilization.

In Saigon, Buddhist elders met with Diem, demanding that the government pay compensation for those killed in Hue, prosecute the responsible officials, and permit use of the Buddhist flag. Diem refused to agree to any of this.

On May 28, 1963 Buddhist activists announced the start of a two-day hunger strike, that also led to the self-immolation of a monk mentioned earlier.

In August, 1963, Diem’s special forces raided Buddhist monasteries and the An Quang pagoda and Tu Dam pagodas. At the Tu Dam pagoda, an eight-hour pitched battle ensued between troops and demonstrators armed with sticks. According to Prados, U.S. horror at Diem’s actions resulted in the withdrawal of support for the government and acquiescence in the generals’ coup against Diem.

That action, in turn, virtually locked the U.S. into the Vietnam War.

Another result of the special forces’ attacks on monasteries and pagodas was their impact on the Buddhist movement. Prados says that the conservative hierarchy that had resisted calls to activism was silenced by the August raids while Buddhists throughout the country were radicalized by the government’s show of force. The success of the November coup against Diem seemed to affirm the arguments of leaders like Thich Tri Quang.

Thich Tri Quang under Communism

After the North Vietnamese took control over South Vietnam at end of the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975, Tri Quang was confined to his pagoda under a kind of house arrest.

In mid-July of 1979, James P. Sterba, a veteran Vietnam correspondent, was in Indonesia when he learned what had happened to Tri Quang under the Communists. Thich Dien Quang, a subordinate of Tri Quang who had escaped from Vietnam to Indonesia, said that he had witnessed what amounted to the torture of Tri Quang.

Thich Dien Quang said in an interview with Sterba that Tri Quang “was turned into a skeleton-like cripple during a year and a half of solitary confinement.”

After his legs had atrophied, Tri Quang was then confined in a wheelchair at the An Quang pagoda. He had to slowly learn to walk again.

According to Thien Quang, Tri Quang had been kept for 16 months in a coffin-like hole in which he couldn’t sit up. He was let out for 15 minutes a day to relieve himself and bathe.

He described imprisonment under the Communists as much worse than under the Thieu regime.

“Under Thieu, we were only protesting against corruption,” Thien Quang said.

“Now under Communism, we cannot exist at all. Now we are fighting for life and death.”

In 1981, the Communist authorities created a new Buddhist Church which they declared to be the only legitimate Buddhist institution in Vietnam. This, too, triggered protests by monks and more arrests. But there’s no evidence that Tri Quang was involved in those protests.

Tri Quang was eventually released from imprisonment. According to one report, he was sent to work in the city of Hue’s sanitation department as punishment for his refusal to accept or support Communist rule.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.

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