Under Ngô Đình Diệm’s Roman-Catholic orientated regime, a ban had been placed on flying flags during religious festivals in South Vietnam. This included flying the Buddhist flag on Phật Đản (Vesak Day), which commemorates the birth of Gautama Buddha in over twenty-one countries around the world. It was a ban that Diệm himself ignored, regularly flying Vatican flags from the Presidential Palace where he lived.
As a result, on 8 May 1963, 3,000 Buddhists protested in the city centre of Huế calling for religious equality in South Vietnam. After a number of speeches made throughout the day by the organiser of the protest Thích Trí Quang, tensions steadily increased to the point where armed forces were called in to disperse the crowd. Grenades and fire hoses were used on the demonstrators before the armed forces fired directly into the crowd. In the end, nine protesters were killed and four severely injured. Two of the dead, both children, had been crushed underneath armoured personnel carriers. Some of the nine had been mutilated and decapitated.
In the aftermath, Diệm denied responsibility for the armed crackdown and the death of civilians, blaming it instead on Việt Cộng insurgents. In response, Buddhists rose up across South Vietnam against the religious discrimination which they felt was perpetrated by the Diệm regime, in what is now known as the “Buddhist Crises.” This led to widespread civil disobedience among the South Vietnamese.
On 11 June 1963 in Saigon, Buddhist resistance to religious persecution culminated in an act that shook the world and ultimately led to America finally abandoning their support for Ngô Đình Diệm. Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. Photographs of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm government. John F. Kennedy said in reference to a photograph of Đức on fire:
President John F. Kennedy in Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A history, 1997, Penguin Books, New York
Quảng Đức’s act increased international pressure on Diệm and led him to announce reforms with the intention of mollifying the Buddhists. However, the promised reforms were not implemented, leading to a deterioration in the dispute. With protests continuing, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Special Forces loyal to Diệm’s brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, launched nationwide raids on Buddhist pagodas, seizing Quảng Đức’s interned heart and causing deaths and widespread damage. Several Buddhist monks followed Quảng Đức’s example, also immolating themselves.