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Buddhists - The 1963 Crisis

The Buddhist crisis was touched off on May 7, 1963, the fourteenth day of the fourth lunar month, celebrated in Vietnam as the anniversary of the Buddha's birthday. The disturbance broke out at Hue in Central Vietnam, the center of Vietnamese Buddhism and also the seat of Roman Catholic Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, President Diem's elder brother and the most powerful voice in South Vietnam's Catholic community. Politically, Hue was also the seat of Ngo Dinh Can, who had ruled Central Vietnam, often independently of Saigon.

The crisis was precipitated by the government order forbidding the flying of the Buddhist flag. Buddhist followers who had gathered at Hue's Tu Dam Pagoda on May 7 were aroused by the government's order, and the next day they staged protest demonstrations to demand religious equality. At this rally Thich Tri Quang, militant leader of the Buddhist movement in Central Vietnam, declared their demand to be "legitimate." His recorded speech, to be rebroadcast that evening on Radio Hue, was, however, canceled hy the authorities. Thereupon, some 10,000 persons defied the local security authorities, who countered by firing into the crowds.

The shooting resulted in the death of nine demonstrators. The authorities blamed Communist terrorists, but the Buddhists held the government troops responsible. On May 9, Thich Tam Chau, a relatively moderate leader of the Buddhist movement in the southern zone of the Republic, appealed to all Buddhists to join in protest against the government. The next day a group of Buddhist leaders, including Thich Tri Quang, called upon the government, in a five point manifesto, to withdraw the order forbidding the flying of the Buddhist flag, to grant Buddhism equal status and privileges accorded the Catholic Church, to punish officers responsible for the Hue incident and compensate the victims thereof, to allow freedom of worship to the Buddhists and to stop harassing Buddhist faithful. Two weeks later the Buddhist leadership disavowed any political ambition by declaring that they were not advocating the overthrow of the government and that they had "no yearning nor desire to struggle for power."

The government announced on June 1 the diemissal of three senior officials involved in the Hue shooting incident, but this step failed to satisfy the Buddhists. The Buddhist cause was strengthened on June 11 by the self-immolation by fire of an elderly monk, Thich Quang Duc, on a Saigon street. On this date representatives from both sides tentatively reached a compromise agreement whereby the government promised vaguely to satisfy the Buddhist demands.

Thich Tinh Khiet, on behalf of the Buddhist community, expressed the view that the agreement would "inaugurate a new era and that no misunderstanding, no erroneous action from whatever quarter will occur again." The agreement failed to improve the situation, in part because of subsequent government charges that some of the Buddhist leaders were associated with the Communists and in part because of the government's delaying tactics. Moreover, measures reflecting increasingly anti-Buddhist attitudes on the part of Ngo Dinh Nhu and Madame Nhu served to widen the breach between the two sides.

The relation between the government and the Buddhists deteriorated beyond repair after August 20 and 21, when, under the direction of Ngo Dinh Nhu; several hundred armed police and troops raided a number of pagodas in Saigon and Hue, arresting nearly 1,000 monks, nuns and laymen. Three monks, including Thich Tri Quang, evaded the authorities and were granted asylum by the United States Embassy in Saigon, This raid, which resulted in the inactivation of most of the leading Buddhist elements, also occasioned the emergence of student groups as a politically siguificant force. Despite the proclamation of martial law after the raid, the student groups continued antigovernment "demonstrations in major cities; during the final week of August alone some 1,400 students were arrested by the authorities.

In early September, 2,400 additional students were detained. The Buddhist struggle, especially after the raids of August 21, attracted widespread sympathy in South Vietnam and abroad. On August 22, Saigon's Foreigu Minister Vu Van Mau, a Buddhist, and Ambassador to the United States Tran Van Chuong (father of Madame Nhu) resigued in protest against the government. The United States Department of State issued a statement deploring "serious repressive measures against the Vietnamese Buddhist leaders."

Cambodia broke off diplomatic relations with Saigon on August 27. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Saigon, Monsiguor Paul Nguyen Van Binh, appealed to the government for religious toleration. At the United Nations on September 4 the representatives of 14 Afro-Asian nations formally requested a debate concerning the question of "The Violation of Human Rights in South Vietnam" at the forthcoming session of the General Assembly. On October 24 a 6-nation United Nations Fact Finding-Mission arrived in Saigon.

The Buddhist crisis also aroused many military leaders, some of whom had been used and discarded by the Ngo family. The officers in general were concerned over deteriorating security and were especially disturbed by N go Dinh Nhu's attempt to shift the responsibility for the August raid to the military establishment. In addition, they appeared to have been alarmed over Nhu's reported disclosure in mid-October 1963 that he had been probing the possibility of direct negotiations with the Hanoi regime.

On November 1, 1963, a group of senior generals led by Major Generals Duong Van Minh, Trau Van Don and Le Van Kim carried out a coup d'etat against the regime. President Diem and his brother, Nhu, were killed by army officers. Their death ended the Ngo family's 9 years of rule. The coup leaders eechewed political ambitions, pledged a relentlees anti-Communist drive and on November 2 installed as prime minister Nguyen Ngoc Tho, a Buddhist who had served as vice president since 1955.

The Buddhist leaders, despite their major role in the anti-Ngo Dinh Diem struggle, did not participate directly in the decisionmaking process of the government. Instead, ,their new strategy was to develop a cohesive national organization, presuma;bly to assert themselves more effectively in public affairs. On January 3, 1964, they formed a Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (Giao Hoi Phat Giao Vietnam Thong Nhat) under the nominal leadership of the aged Thich Tink Khiet; in fact, the organization was led by Thich Tri Quang and Thich Tam Chau.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:37:10 ZULU