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News / Nation & World

Buddhist monk who used political might during Vietnam dies

Thich Tri Quang was 95; he led waves of protests

By Emily Langer, The Washington Post
Published: November 13, 2019, 9:25pm

Thich Tri Quang, a Buddhist monk who wielded formidable political power during the Vietnam War, leading waves of protests that brought down South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 and later contributed to growing American ambivalence about the war, died Nov. 8 in Hue. He was 95.

His death was announced by the Tu Dam Temple in that central Vietnamese city, where he lived. The cause was not immediately available.

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.”

After Diem’s death, to the chagrin of U.S. officials who wished to see a more stable South Vietnam, Tri Quang mobilized his followers to help overthrow a succession of governments and their holdovers from the Diem regime.