End of an anti-Buddhist tyranny
Posted on June 16th, 2013

Janaka Perera

 This is a postscript to Shenali Waduge’s June 9th article, titled “ƒ”¹…”Remembering the martyrdom of the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Quang Duc on its 50th anniversary.’

 To Madam Ngo Din Nhu, wife of Vietnamese President Din Diem’s younger brother and Chief Adviser, the monk’s death was a cause for joy.  A Buddhist converted to Roman Catholism, she mocked at his self-immolation, saying “let them burn and we shall clap.”   She even called it a “ƒ”¹…”barbecue.’

 But her joy did not last very long.  Quang Duc’s death also had a strong impact on the then U.S. President John F. Kennedy, though himself a Catholic.  Finally Washington decided South Vietnam needed a change of government.

 That was the beginning of the end of the Din Diem regime.         

 On October 8, 1963 – five months after Quang Duc’s martyrdom on June 11 – the United Nations voted to send a fact-finding team to South Vietnam headed by R.S.S. Gunawardena Sri Lanka’s then Ambassador to the UN.  The following month while the fact finding mission was in Vietnam, a military coup overthrew the Din Diem regime on November 2.  The late J.F. Samaranayake, journalist and author, who at the time of the coup was the sole Sri Lankan resident in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) witnessed the event firsthand. 

 Writing to the old Times of Ceylon (Nov. 10, 1963) he states: “For the first time in my life in South Vietnam, I see a spontaneous expression of freedom, mirth and jollity in the streets of Saigon. I see Buddhists monks and students gallivanting, the streets in Army tanks, waving and cheering, happy like any other people in a democratic country.   The Army that fought so fiercely for well-nigh eighteen hours to bring an end to the Ngo Din Diem rule is today regarded as an army of liberation as if from some foreign conquest.  I see people showing their gratitude with gifts of food to soldiers”¦”

 Earlier, on September 10th 1963 Samaranayake left Colombo for Saigon in response to a cable from the Vietnam Press Office.  When he had last left (South) Vietnam in 1959 for Sri Lanka he had the impression the authoritarianism there was necessary to deal with Communist subversion.   Samaranayake naively thought that Din Diem’s “ƒ”¹…”benevolent’ one-man “ƒ”¹…”democracy’ was gradually paving the way for a full-fledged democracy. But eight years of power gradually divorced Diem from reality and he began to believe that he could impose on the people any hardship “”…” not realising they were fed up with nine years of autocratic and nepotistic family rule.

 When Samaranayake arrived in Saigon for the second time it was obvious to him that Diem no longer enjoyed the popularity he had when he defeated former Emperor Bao Dai in the election of 1955 by six and a half million votes (although there were later allegations of vote rigging). Yet Diem was “”…” in Samaranayake’s words – “riding the Tiger of overconfidence” in himself.  Until the last moment on Saturday morning (November 2, 1963) he believed that his government would not fall.

 Samaranayake says: “I listened to his appeals all night long till his voice became hoarse and fainter. It was not that of a man who knew he had at last been cornered. With successive miraculous escapes as Diem himself had since he began his political career there indeed comes a point when one cannot accept that Waterloo is close at hand.”

 Now indications were clear that Diem had overreached his mark.

 Friday November 1st dawned on Saigon as usual. There was a new directive from the Presidency to the effect that from Monday working hours in government offices would be changed. Clearly Diem was expecting many more years of power. In the meantime the price of an American dollar was sky rocketing.  Since Nov. 1 was a public holiday (All Saints Day) the market was crowded. But by noon some market-sellers began closing their shops. Still hardly anyone suspected the day was going to end differently.

 In the afternoon Samaranayake left his Saigon residence to walk to the press office little suspecting that he would have to spend that night inside a stinking latrine. Half way on his walk he heard gunfire behind him. He tried to walk fast for now he could not turn back. The road was deserted and he was the only person on the boulevard. He just managed to reach the office when a tank passed by spattering bullets about. Inside the office there was no work. The staff was belly crawling to avoid bullets and taking shelter behind tables and chairs.  There was an electricity failure and a foolish Vietnamese engineer started the stand-by generator. Soldiers in a passing tank mistook the generator’s noise for a counter attack gave the hide out at the office an extra dose of bullets.

 After two-hours the firing ceased. The radio announced that the marines had taken over the Government, the radio station was occupied and the President’s Gailong Palace and Police Headquarters were surrounded.

 Around 4.30 p.m. the city apparently returned to normalcy though tanks were poised at certain places. Expecting better security Samaranayake walked back home at No.2 Thong Nut to find that army firing against Diem’s soldiers had caused heavy damage to the building. Samaranayake’s landlord, a Frenchman named Pierre Medard, his wife and four little children were huddled together in the latrine passage.  That was actually the safest place in the whole two-storeyed building. It was situated in front of the British Embassy and next door to Army Headquarters. There was also an anti-Diem student who wanted to spend the night with Samaranayake and the French family. 

 Then firing started again with tank cannon and machine guns booming and rat-tatting all over.   All in the house reconciled themselves to their fate, with no food, afraid to put the lights on and go to the dining room for a drink lest a stray bullet should hit them.

 Says Samaranayake: “We had a small transistor radio which we turned on to hear Diem’s appeals to the Army, while counting the minutes in the hope that something definite would happen, one way or another”¦  By midnight the Army was calling on the Diemists to surrender and around 1.30 a.m. the first battle for the Army Headquarters was over. Now feeling a secure, I crept upstairs and opened a window and watched tanks as they rumbled away. It was a well-planned coup. Having got the whole Army on their side, General Duong Van Minh’s soldiers were now to give a taste of their own power to Diem in his own den. General Duong Van Minh knew his eggs for he was Diem’s military adviser.”

 Promised safe exile by the coup leaders Din Diem and his brother agreed to surrender. But after being arrested they were instead executed in the back of an armoured personnel carrier by army officers.  No formal inquiry was conducted.

 Samaranayake stopped a student in the streets as he was watching a cinema being devastated.  When the former asked what he was celebrating the student had replied in his pidgin, “giving a world of meaning” to the tension in the country:  “Because the Christian Man is gone. No more, no more.”       

 (Later Samaranayake recounted his Vietnam experiences in a book titled Assignment Vietnam )

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