The rabid nationalism of Buddhists in Burma & Sri Lanka should not confuse us about the character of Buddhism. My generation, where millions around the world marched against the Vietnam War, well remembers the massive protests by Buddhist monks & the grim images from 1963 of Buddhist monks in South Vietnam self-immolating to protest persecution of Buddhists under the US-backed Ngo Dinh Diem regime which favored Catholics. Buddhists were then 70% to 90% of the South Vietnamese population. Diem’s sister-in-law Madame Nhu remains notorious for offering to supply the matches for what she dubbed the ‘barbecues’. The US was covertly involved in Vietnam at that time but did not deploy troops until 1965. However, in a matter of months after the 1963 immolations & protests, Diem was arrested & assassinated in a CIA-backed military coup. The US certainly didn’t engineer the coup to end persecution of Buddhists but to prepare the political groundwork for the deployment of troops.

As US military presence in Vietnam increased after 1965, more & more Buddhist monks engaged in massive protests & in self-immolation as an act of political opposition to the war. Self-immolation is a grisly tactic of civil resistance used since in other countries, including Czechoslovakia, India, Tibet, the US, by Turkish Kurds, & most recently in 2011 when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, igniting the Arab Spring uprisings in several countries. A least seven other protesters in North Africa have since set themselves on fire to protest autocratic regimes.

Contingents of Buddhist monks were a fixture at antiwar protests from Vietnam through the several US wars which followed. Since there is no antiwar movement today, their presence is not evident but when a principled antiwar movement is rebuilt, it is certain they will again take up a central role.

Photo is Buddhist monk Quang Duc self-immolating on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963 to protest persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

(Photo by Malcolm Browne/AP)