Vietnam War: Religion

Buddhist protests in Vietnam
Figure 1.--This American press photo was releaserd August 17, 1953 . This was one of a series of Buddhist protests widely covered in the American media. The capotion read, "Hue, so Viet Nam. Young Buddhist Boy Scouts sit in position of prayer in front of Province Headquarters here 8-14/ They were protesting Govement removal of body of novice priest Thich Thang Thue, who burned himself to death 8-13 as demonstration against the country's religious policies. The Buddhists wanted Thuc to be buried in the center of Hue, where tension is high, but the government insisted he be buried at a small pagoda outside the city."

There was a religious dimension to the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese most opposed to Communism were those families thas converted to Christiasnity, primarily Catholocism, during the French colonial period. After the French defeatat Dien Vien Phu at the partition of the country (1953), Catholics in large numbers attempted to reach the South fearful of their future under Communism. The msajor Vietnamese religious trasdition was Mahayana Buddhism, but many Vietnamese visited the shrines of other religions with little difficulty. The Communists generally were less inclined to move against Buddhisdts unless they critized them. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and many officialls were Catholics, often refugees from the North. Budhists in the South resented the importance of Catholics in the Diem's authoritarian regime. One of the iconic images from the Vietnam War resulted from this religious divide. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue to protest the Diem Government, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon (June 11, 1963). Duc and at least two fellow monks calmly got out of the car, assumed the traditional lotus position and the accompanying monks helped him pour gasoline over himself. He personally ignited the gasoline with a match burned himself to death. The event was widely covered by the American media. David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times wrote extensively about the incident. The general impression was that the South Vietnasmese Government was repressive which was basically true. Little of the coverage addressed the issue of religious freedom in Vietnam or specific actions by the Government to restrict religious freedom. Also not widely covered is the absence of religious freedom in the North. And scandously those voices who so loudly protested incidents like this were silent after the Communist victory (1975) as to what happened to religious people in Vietnam. To some extent this was because images like those of Thich Quang Duc no longer emerged from the tightly controlled Communist Vietnamese press. But the American press was also less engaged in reporting Communist repression.


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Created: 6:48 AM 7/22/2009
Last updated: 6:49 AM 7/22/2009