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Thich Tri Quang, leader of the Buddhist protests

The Buddhist crisis was a period of political and religious tension in South Vietnam from May 1963 to November 1963. The crisis was precipitated by the shootings of nine unarmed civilians on May 8 in the central city of Hue who were protesting a ban of the Buddhist flag. The crisis ended with a coup in November 1963 by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and the Arrest and assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm on November 2.




May 1963

On May 7, 1963, a 1958 law known as Decree Number 10 was invoked to prohibit the display of religious flags. This disallowed the flying of Buddhist flags on Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. On May 8, an assembly of protesters against the ban were shot upon by the troops of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, resulting in the death of nine.

Diem denied governmental responsibility for the incident. Instead, the president blamed the Vietcong for the event. Diem's Secretary of State Nguyen Dinh Thuan accused the Vietcong of exploiting Buddhist unrest and declared that Diem could not make concessions without fueling further demands. The Vietnam Press, a pro-Diem newspaper, published a government declaration confirming the existence of religious freedom and emphasizing the supremacy of the country's flag. Diem's National Assembly affirmed this statement, but this did not placate the Buddhists.

On May 30, more than 500 monks demonstrated in front of the National Assembly in Saigon. The Buddhists had evaded a ban on public assembly by hiring four buses and filling up and pulling the blinds down. They drove around the city before the convoy stopped at the designated time and the monks disembarked.[1] They unfurled banners and sat down for four hours before disbanding and returning to the pagodas to begin a nationwide 48 hour hunger strike organised by the Buddhist patriarch Thich Tinh Khiet.[2][3]

June 1963

On June 1, Diem's authorities announced the dismissal of the three major officials involved in the Hue incident: the province chief and his deputy, and the government delegate for the Central Region of Vietnam. The stated reason was that they had failed to maintain order. By this time, the situation appeared to be beyond reconciliation.[4]

On June 3, 1963, Vietnamese police and troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam poured chemicals on the heads of praying Buddhist protestors in the South Vietnamese city of Huế. 67 people were hospitalised and the United States threatened privately to withdraw aid from the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

On June 11, 1963, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Ðức burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection in protest of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

In the meanwhile Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon had become a centre of Buddhist unrest. There the monks produced and mimeographed pamphlets attacking Diem's policies for dissemination, organised mass meetings, demonstrations and hunger strikes. They compiled daily news items to motivate followers and campaigned among relatives in the civilian public sector and the armed forces.[5] The Hue shootings were kept on the agenda by a memorial service at the An Quang Pagoda in the Chinese district of Cholon which was addressed by prominent members of the sangha, i.e. monks. Hundreds of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns then formed a procession to take the memorial tablets back into Xa Loi in the city centre.

July 1963

On July 7, 1963, the secret police of Ngo Dinh Nhu—the brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem—attacked a group of journalists from the United States who were covering Buddhist protests on the ninth anniversary of Diem's rise to power. Peter Arnett of the Associated Press (AP) was punched in the nose, but the quarrel quickly ended after David Halberstam of The New York Times, being much taller than Nhu's men, counterattacked and caused the secret police to retreat. Arnett and Browne were later accosted by police at their office and taken away for questioning on suspicion of attacking police officers.

August 1963

On the evening of August 18, ten senior generals of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam met to discuss the situation and decided that martial law would need to be imposed. On August 20, Nhu summoned seven of the generals to Gia Long Palace for consultation. They presented their request to impose martial law and discussed dispersion of the monks. Nhu sent the generals to see Diệm. The president listened to the group of seven, led by General Tran Van Don. Don claimed that Communists had infiltrated the monks at Xa Loi Pagoda and warned that ARVN morale was deteriorating because of the civil unrest. He claimed that it was possible that the Buddhists could assemble a crowd to march on Gia Long Palace. Hearing this, Diem agreed to declare martial law effective on the next day, without consulting his cabinet. Troops were ordered into Saigon to occupy strategic points. Don was appointed at the acting Chief of the Armed Forces in the place of General Le Van Ty, who was abroad having medical treatment. Don noted that Diem was apparently concerned with the welfare of the monks, telling the generals that he did not want any of them hurt. The martial law orders were authorized with the signature of Don, who had no idea that military action was to occur in the early hours of August 21 without his knowledge.[6][7]

Shortly after midnight on August 21 troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces under Colonel Lê Quang Tùng executed a series of synchronised attacks on the Buddhist pagodas in South Vietnam. Over 1400 Buddhists were arrested. The number killed or "disappeared" is estimated to be in the hundreds. The most prominent of the pagodas raided was that of Xa Loi, which had become the rallying point for Buddhists from the countryside. The troops vandalized the main altar and managed to confiscate the intact charred heart of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who had self-immolated in protest against the policies of the regime. The Buddhists managed to escape with a receptacle with the remainder of his ashes. Two monks jumped the back wall of the pagoda into the grounds of the adjoining US Aid Mission, where they were given asylum. Thich Tinh Khiet, the 80 year old Buddhist patriarch, was seized and taken to a military hospital on the outskirts of Saigon.[8] The commander of the III Corps of the ARVN, Ton That Dinh soon announced military control over Saigon, canceling all commercial flights into the city and instituting press censorship.[9]

November 1963

On November 1, 1963, after six months of tension and growing opposition to the regime, generals from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam conducted a coup, which led to the fall of the Diem government and the arrest and assassination of the president.


  1. ^ Gettleman 1966, p. 279.
  2. ^ Hammer 1987, p. 118.
  3. ^ Hammer 1987, p. 259.
  4. ^ Jones 2003, pp. 259-260.
  5. ^ Jones 2003, p. 254.
  6. ^ Hammer 1987, p. 166.
  7. ^ Jones 2003, p. 300.
  8. ^ Hammer 1987, p. 168.
  9. ^ Jones 2003, p. 298.


  • Gettleman, Marvin E. (1966). Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis. New York: Penguin.  
  • Hammer, Ellen J. (1987). A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: E.P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24210-4.  
  • Jones, Howard (2003). Death of a Generation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505286-2.  


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