For about three years during a critical phase of the Vietnam War, from 1963 to 1966, Tri Quang commanded headlines as a figure of international interest if not outright intrigue. More than once, the New York Times featured him as a “Man in the News.” Clad in gray robes, he appeared on the front of Time magazine in 1966.
“Lean, well-muscled, with a sensual electricity, in every gesture and blazing eyes that can mesmerize a mob, Thich Tri Quang, 42, has long been South Viet Nam’s mysterious High Priest of Disorder,” read the cover story in Time.
“Wily and ruthless, Delphic and adept, he is the best of breed of a new kind of back room bonze,” the profile continued, using another word for Buddhist monk. “In the murky world of Oriental mysticism and Saigon’s immemorial intrigue, these robed and shaven men have emerged as the new Machiavellis of the Vietnamese political scene. Tri Quang is unquestionably their prince.”
Part of the fascination surrounding Tri Quang — Thich is a religious title, akin to “the Reverend” in English — stemmed from what to Western observers sometimes seemed the contradictory nature of his objectives. He was variously described as the great champion of Vietnam’s Buddhist majority and a radical sowing political dissent in an already tortured land. At times, he was called a communist, at other times an anti-communist.
In 1963, he was granted a haven in the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam after escaping government raids on Buddhist pagodas. But by 1966, he charged that Vietnam was “oppressed by two pressures — the Communists and the Americans.”
“When it comes to the Vietnam War,” Edward Miller, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, said in an interview, “I think that Americans and others always tend to try to fit everything that happened . . . into this Cold War framework, where it’s all about communism or anti-communism. In the case of Tri Quang, I think the key to understanding him is that he was first and foremost a Buddhist and a nationalist.”
Tri Quang — the name meant “brilliant mind,” according to Time — was born in Diem Dien, a village in the central province of Quang Binh that would later become part of the Communist North. According to an obituary published by Voice of America, which reported his birth date as Dec. 21, 1923, his name at birth was Pham Quang.
He was the son of a farmer and became a monk at age 12 or 13, a practice that Miller said was not unusual in Vietnam. He settled in Hue, which after 1954 became part of South Vietnam. Time reported that his pagoda expelled him over his penchant for practical jokes but later readmitted him.
Early on, Tri Quang was inspired by the struggle against the French colonial rule that ended with the conclusion of the first Indochina war in 1954 and the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. He was also concerned, Miller wrote in an article published in 2014 in the journal Modern Asian Studies, with what Tri Quang described as the “unity of the Buddhist faithful” across Vietnam.
He first came to prominence in 1963 as a leader of protests that led to the ouster of Diem, the first president of South Vietnam, in a U.S.-backed coup that November. Diem was Catholic, with a brother who was a powerful archbishop, and most of the protesters seeking his overthrow were Buddhist. For them and for Tri Quang, Miller said, Buddhism and Vietnamese national identity went “hand in hand.”
Time reported that Tri Quang employed spies in the Diem government and armed monks with insecticide sprayers filled with vinegar and red pepper. Hostilities reached a flash point on May 8, 1963, when South Vietnamese soldiers fired on a group of Buddhists flying a Buddhist flag in Hue. Nine people were killed.
Protests culminated with the ritual suicide on June 11, 1963, of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who was soaked with gasoline and then sat lotus style as he burned to death on a Saigon street.
That scene, captured in a photograph by Associated Press journalist Malcolm Browne, ricocheted around the world and pushed President John F. Kennedy to reconsider U.S. support for Diem, who was ultimately assassinated in the coup.
After Diem’s death, to the chagrin of U.S. officials who wished to see a more stable South Vietnam amid the ongoing war with the North, Tri Quang mobilized his followers to help overthrow a succession of governments and their holdovers from the Diem regime.
At that point, Miller said, the U.S. government began to look on him more skeptically.
“We perceived that he had great influence over Buddhist opinion within South Vietnam,” said James McAllister, a scholar of the Vietnam War at Williams College in Massachusetts who has written extensively about Tri Quang, and hoped he would “rally South Vietnam to fight against communism.”
Instead what ensued was continued dissension across South Vietnam. A second Buddhist uprising, again with Tri Quang as a principal leader, erupted in 1966 during the government of Nguyen Cao Ky, revealing the extent of fissures within the South Vietnamese society and government.
The protests, which were eventually crushed, came as an unwelcome development in the United States, which by then had deepened its involvement in war with the deployment of combat troops. The question that arose, said McAllister, was “how are we going to win this war if . . . the people of South Vietnam are fighting each other?”
Around that time, Tri Quang mounted a hunger strike that brought his weight to 84 pounds, The Washington Post reported in 1966. Even in the heat of Vietnam he wore a wool sweater.
“I have no flesh left to keep in the warmth,” Tri Quang told a Post reporter. “There is nothing to me anymore.”
Allegations of Tri Quang’s supposed communism swirled long after he left the public eye, as scholars reexamined the history of the Vietnam War. But a CIA investigation of Tri Quang in 1964, a copy of which McAllister provided, described those charges as founded on “hearsay, gossip and accusations, without any supporting evidence.”
Little was known about Tri Quang’s activities after the end of the Vietnam War. It was said that he spent a period under house arrest at his pagoda, but that information could not be confirmed. He had a brother who served in the South Vietnamese army and another who also was a monk, but complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.
In its 1966 cover story, Time reported that Tri Quang lived for at least one period in a small cell at his pagoda, where he did not partake of meat, cigarettes or alcohol. He rose with the sun, a reporter wrote, “spending a third of his waking day in prayer, a third in activity, a third in contemplation of his mistakes.”
Paul Mooney in Hanoi contributed to this report.