an ordinary man’s cry



The concept of self-immolation – strongly related to the Buddhist and Hindu tradition – is alien to Judeo-Christian tradition where suicide is considered evil, which hurts you and your community, as well as transgression against God - the creator of life. For this reason every act of suicide (particularly in public) becomes the topic of animated discussion and the reasons for this act are investigated.

On 11th June 1963 a Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon, at a busy intersection in the city centre. He wanted to protest against the dictatorship of a Catholic president Ngo Dinh Diem and the persecution of Buddhism in Southern Vietnam. It was not the first or the last act of a Buddhist monk’s (or a nun’s) self-immolation in the history – it became known in the whole world thanks to a widely distributed photograph taken by Malcolm Browne. In Buddhism self-immolation, although it still remains unusual and not at all common, is accepted – particularly in China and Southern and Eastern Asia. It must also be remembered that this act of self-destruction, is understood not as an act of despair and helplessness, but evidence of commitment and courage. A Buddhist who chooses to die this way abandons passivity in the face of evil and destruction. In an active way but free of violence against others, he/she warns against destruction which self-immolation is the symbol of. It is also a warning and an attempt to stop an individual from walking down the road of destruction. Self-immolation can be understood as a cry, but not of despair but rather a warning, and – in this cultural context – an offering made by an individual in the interest of the whole community.

The act of self-immolation by a Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc

The photograph taken on 11th June 1963 was awarded the Photograph of the Year in the World Press Photo Contest (1963) and gave Malcolm Browne the Pulitzer Prize (1964)

Malcolm Browne himself recalled in which circumstances the photo was taken:

It was at night on 10th June 1963. Duc called me and said: Mr Browne, please come to such and such pagoda tomorrow at 6am. Something really important is going to happen. I knew instantly that it was unusual – a crowd of Buddhist monks and nuns had gathered, many of them were crying. Two young monks took out a plastic petrol can, poured it all over the older one and took a step back. Thich Quang Duc lit a match which he had kept on his stomach and set himself on fire. I was dumbstruck; I felt a cold sweat come over me. With great difficulty I managed to concentrate on the focus, exposition and the activity of taking the photo. I was terrified. On many occasions I was asked if I could have stopped this suicide. I couldn’t. There was a tight group of about 200 monks who were ready to block me if I had tried to move. Some of them threw themselves in front of fire engines. However, after all those years I feel I contributed to this death. That this monk wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t been sure of the presence of a reporter who would then be able report the whole thing to the world (quotation from

The photograph was distributed around the world, not only in media but also through the Chinese government which attempted to turn this image into a symbol of ‘American imperialism’ (photos of other Buddhist monks and nuns committing the acts of self-immolation as a protest against the war in Vietnam were used in a similar way).

Everett Collection/East News
The act of self-immolation by a Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc

The acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks were used by the propaganda of the Eastern Bloc as a symbol of fighting American ‘militarism’ and the war in Vietnam. Images widely discussed in official media reached the Eastern Bloc nationals where, apart from overtones that the authorities were interested in, inspired people who searched for possibilities for ‘waking up’ indoctrinated societies and shouting out their protest against communism.

When a Buddhist monk committed an act of self-immolation he decided on making a painful sacrifice, he wanted to announce with his screaming hat he had something important to say. Physically nothing in the world hurts more than a burn. A Buddhist monk who decided to make this sacrifice committed an act of self-destruction, but there was also something creative in this act.

Rev Prof. Józef Tischner about the Buddhist idea of self-destruction
The extract comes from the documentary by Maciej Drygas “Hear My Cry”

In the context of events in Czechoslovakia the act of self-immolation by a 21-year-old student Jan Palach from the Charles University in Prague on 16th January 1969 became the most famous incident. (You can learn more about other acts of self-immolation on ). Unfortunately, the radical protest of Ryszard Siwiec which took place earlier went unnoticed.

Ryszard Siwiec prepared his act very carefully: he drew up his will; 3-4 days before he left, he managed to get the pass to the harvest festival which took place at the 10th- Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw. He had his photo taken at the photographer’s; his family collected it after his death. He bought solvent and prepared leaflets which he then took with him to Warsaw. The day before, he went to the castle in Przemyśl and accompanied by two friends recorded his message on a cassette tape. On 7th September in the morning he said goodbye to his family. He took his son’s inexpensive watch, left him his, much more valuable, as a keepsake. On the train to Warsaw, in the early hours of the morning on 8th September, he wrote a goodbye letter to his wife (she received it many years later as it was intercepted by the Security Service):

Dear Marysia! Don’t cry! Don’t waste your energy, you’ll need it, I’m convinced that I’ve lived for 60 years for this moment. Forgive me, I couldn’t do it any other way, for the truth not to be forgotten, for the humanity and freedom – I’m dying. But it’s the lesser of two evils – like the death of millions, don’t come to Warsaw, nothing can help me anymore, we’re approaching Warsaw, I’m writing on the train and that’s why it’s a little crooked. I feel so good, I feel so calm, so peaceful – like never before in my life!

The film was recorded by the Security Service officer Lieut Tadeusz Czyżewski and then attached to the documents of this case codenamed “Wawel”. In later years the sound track, as well as a voice-over commentary were added. A fragment was then attached to the series of twelve films which served as a training programme for security service officers. A false piece of information appears in the film, namely that it was made in 1969. Most likely this was done deliberately in order to avoid associations with the intervention in Czechoslovakia and the events in March 1968.

The collection of the Institute of National Remembrance.

Several hours later at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium – in the presence of 100,000 people including the authorities – with Władysław Gomułka as the main guest – dramatic events took place. Exactly at 12.15 pm in section 13 which was located near the parade box (the pass allowed the entrance to section 37) Ryszard Siwiec poured solvent all over him and lit fire. He was burning whilst standing. Among other things he was shouting “Long live free Poland!” “This is a free, dying man’s cry!” “Don’t rescue me, look what’s in my briefcase!”

People standing next to him moved several metres away and watched him from a safe distance. It took them a few minutes to put him out; he was making it very difficult himself trying to escape and defending against those who were trying to help him. Although all his clothes had burnt on him, he didn’t lose consciousness. He left the stand on his own, clumsily supported by militia officers. He was taken to hospital not by an ambulance but an unmarked Security Service car.

The celebrations were not stopped even for a moment. On the field groups carried on dancing; music was coming from loudspeakers. Siwiec’s briefcase remained at the stadium. It contained, among other things, a white and red flag with an inscription “For your freedom and ours. Honour and Homeland” as well as leaflets which began with words: “I protest against unprovoked aggression against our sister Czechoslovakia...”

As a result of extensive burns (second and third degree burns covering 85% of his total body surface) Ryszard Siwiec died on 12th September 1968 in the Prague Hospital in Warsaw.

We started the second part of the report, the second part of the programme which was definitely harder, but for the reporter also more rewarding.

More difficult, because it’s really tricky to talk about dancing on the radio but with Sławek Szof, who I was doing this transmission with, we came up with this idea that we’d speak to the beat.

So when a group that danced polonaise turned up on the field, we spoke in a swinging and sliding way so that we could describe these stripes, these wonderful clothes to the beat of a polonaise. The same with waltz, and so on. And so on.

Suddenly I heard a hum, an alarming buzz, like when you are at a football match and you focus on the game but all of the sudden a fight starts. But first there’s the buzz, the anxiety, and then you start paying attention and trying to find out where it’s coming from and notice that something is happening.

When the harvest wreath was being laid I spotted that in the section under mine people had dispersed and there was this massive column of dark smoke.

It was sheer coincidence that I was at this stadium. I wasn’t following what was going on there but I do remember that it was a beautiful day, blue sky, young people were dancing, music was playing and then in the adjacent section fire broke out.

In the nearby tunnel young people were preparing to perform. And at some point one the group members shouted:

“Mum, there’s a fire!”

I ran out in front of the section and I saw a tall column of smoke, people screaming and a person on fire.

Of course, I had a 180 mm lens camera with me, on a tripod stand. I was looking through the lens, and I saw what was happening on the other side of the stadium more closely. Very clearly I saw a man on fire.

People started to run away, they were saying: vodka, the man caught fire because of vodka. I saw that man; he was trying to break free from those trying to put him out.

People are running away, screaming, shouting, and I have to look after the young people with me, stop them from going there, what would they go there for?

I took my jacket, quickly jumped off, I mean, I ran down and tried to put that man out by throwing my jacket onto his head.

I managed to do it; I smothered the fire for 2-3 seconds when I suddenly felt intense heat from underneath.

And he was shouting: “Down with communism! Down with Gomułka!” and so on, about Soviets, and so on, there was everything in his repertoire. It’s hard for me say at this moment but when I threw my jacket onto his face he was so burnt already that his skin with his hair, everything came off him and was on my jacket. Blood and so on. It was shocking:

eyes bleeding, ears bleeding, he’s burnt all over, everything together: skin, hair, and so on... It’s a really shocking sight. But I managed to put him out, but the only thing left on him in terms of clothes was his belt he was holding onto.

A man on fire is a horrific sight. I saw him change colour, like a chameleon, from purple, green to red.

His hair was standing up, like flagpoles.

He was on fire and people were shouting: madman, loony!

The men sitting next to me, in civilian clothes, brought a black briefcase and they were looking through it. The papers were a typescript which said that this man did it in protest against what had happened in Czechoslovakia.

I knew it straightaway. One of them even said that if he could, if he had a gun, he’d shoot him.

For a moment I trembled, or it was rather a tingling sensation.
Something I hadn’t experienced and wouldn’t want to ever experience again but I will never ever forget this sensation.

I had to pull myself together because I had to go on with the broadcast; anyway, we had texts so we concentrated on those. Another dance, another colourful image, we went on with the broadcast.

The ambulance came and people tried to shepherd him there, but they were scared to touch him. The doctor as well, in a white doctor’s coat, wanted to do something but he was afraid to touch him.

He was below me for a while and was shouting something but the music was playing and we couldn’t hear him.

He was shouting a lot.

Statements of witnesses to the events at the 10th-Anniversary Stadium.
The extract comes from the documentary by Maciej Drygas “Hear My Cry”

The act of self-immolation by a Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc