Fifty years ago today, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc committed ritual suicide by setting himself on fire to protest the Diem regime. Associated Press correspondent Malcolm Browne and two other news outlets in Saigon were notified of the memorial service, but Browne was the only one that brought a camera that day. He is credited with taking the horrifying picture of Thich Quang Duc’s suicide that resonates in your mind as soon as you see it.
In remembrance, the AP has put together a very interesting package that outlines Browne’s day on June 11, 1963, and the history behind the event. The piece is very informative, however, I found some misleading information.
While exploring the historical context section, it says that on June 1,1963, two monks notified Browne of the suicides. When you continue to the timeline portion, it says on that on June 10 a monk called Browne and said, “Mr. Browne, I strongly advise you to come. I expect something very important will happen, but I cannot tell you what.” This is confusing because the article mentions that Browne already knew about the suicides, but then goes on to try to create suspense with this quote. Did Browne already know what would happen or was he just lucky to remember the camera?
They show a picture of Browne interviewing the leading spokesman for the Xa Loi Buddhist pagoda, but there is no link to the interview. I was really interested in reading what was said, and surprisingly, it is harder to find than expected.
Besides some minor details, I enjoyed learning more about this defining moment in history. For example, Thich Quang Duc used aviation fuel instead of gasoline because it burns slower, making the image much more gruesome. Because the piece was an interactive multimedia package, the timeline allowed you to go through the events of the day. According to Browne’s notes, it took the monk 13 minutes to collapse to his death.
The image that we think of when we think of this event is one that is now dubbed, “The Ultimate Protest.” However, it was not the original image that was published on the front page. “The Ultimate Protest” was one of the photos that arrived in New York the following days after the suicide.
“In a pre-digital world, it took a remarkable 15 hours over 9,000 miles of AP WirePhoto cable for Malcolm Browne’s Burning Monk to become breaking news,” the article mentioned.
In today’s world, we want immediacy. We can get our news 24 hours a day if we wanted to. In the 1960s, you had to wait until you got the paper the next morning to find out about what happened the previous day. In a short 50 years, our process of consuming news has completely changed.