Anti-Buddhist Sri Lankan Government attempt to ban Vesak pandals echoes Vietnam under Nieg Diem & US foreign policy

By Shenali D Waduge

On 30 March 2018 the Daily Mirror carried a caption No pandals on Vesak, Poson Poya days” declared by the Buddhasasana Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. The reaction was immediate & quite rightly the majority Buddhists saw it as an act of an appeasing Government adopting an anti-Buddhist policy for its own political survival. It also echoed a similar chilling historical incident that took place in Vietnam also under a US-puppet rule. Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm a Catholic & US puppet in 1963 ordered the ban on Buddhist flag display, days prior to Vesak triggering a mass demonstration that resulted in many deaths, the famous self-immolation of Ven. Thich Quang Duc that ultimately led to a military coup & the assassination of the Vietnamese President by the US in view of the global embarrassment that resulted.

Vietnam April 1963

As per Geneva Accords of 1954 North & South Vietnam were to exist for 2 years as temporary states.

South Vietnam had been a French colony and much of its wealth had been plundered. If the West is present in non-Western climes it is because of oil, gas, natural assets or geopolitical interests. Vietnam was where the opium trade thrived.

South Vietnam rulers were backed by the US & Western allies who installed Ngo Dinh Diem a Catholic as Prime Minister who assured to rule based on Western political & economic values & of course American advisors as well as his 4 brothers though nothing was said against nepotism when it came to Western interests. All of the key posts went to friends & family & of course the Catholic Church. It also meant plenty of gangsters & criminals with state patronage. To the world Ngo Dinh Diem rule was an epitome of democracy. To the South Vietnamese citizen’s the rule became a nightmare & the military too was not so gaga about him. Elections were rigged, freedom of the press was non-existent, private armies & torture chambers echoed of our own Batalanda days. Just like we do not know how many died during the 1980s-/1990s JVP-UNP terror reign, no one knows how many Diem’s Western-backed government killed. Another feature shared by Diem & present Sri Lankan US-propped Government was the rampant corruption and the verbal economic plans presented by both leaders!

Another area that Vietnam under Diem & Sri Lanka under yahapalana draw similarities in is the persecution of Buddhists. In Vietnam it made headlines & resulted in the eventual assassination of Diem.

More than 80% of the South Vietnamese population were Buddhists but Diem’s government favored minority Catholics. In May 1963 on the eve of Vesak (Buddha’s birth, enlightenment & death) Diem issued a ban on the display of Buddhist flags in public. The shock is no different to the announcement in Sri Lanka of the Government banning Vesak pandols.

Diem’s orders banning the Buddhist flag came a week after government sponsored Papal flags had been displayed for Diem’s elder brother who was the Catholic Archbishop.

The Vietnamese Buddhists ignored the order & flew their flags while also engaged in peaceful rallies & hunger strikes.


Diem’s response was to attack the peaceful demonstrators with battery acid. On 11 June 1963 an incident took place that shook the world. A 73 year old Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc peacefully sad down, delivered a short speech & set himself on fire. He sat motionless as the flames spread over his entire body. Đức set fire to himself in protest against religious discrimination and persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam.


American journalist Malcolm Browne captured & relayed the pictures all over the world & the photo won Photo of the Year Award & the Pulitzer Prize. David Halberstam, a journalist accompanying Browne, described the event graphically: 

“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

Thich Quang Duc’s last words before his supreme sacrifice was in a letter:

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the Sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

Madame Nhu, Ngo Dinh Nhu’s vicious and hated wife called it ‘Buddhist barbecue”. John F Kennedy said, No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world.”

Diem showed no remorse. He declared martial law and ordered Buddhist temples to be raided & over 1400 Buddhist monks were arrested & some vanished. The pagodas were destroyed & Diem’s forces were uncontrollable. Students of University of Saigon came forward in support of the Buddhists as did all the Buddhists in Vietnam which triggered the change in the US policy – a lesson that all the Buddhist forces in Sri Lanka must take advantage of.

It was too much for the US administration & days after the anti-Buddhist raids President John F Kennedy asked the US State Dept to investigate the options as Diem was now a liability. US envoy was Henry Cabot Lodge to whom US announced its change policy. US had decided to stop its support to Diem. the American mission in Saigon maintained secret contacts with the plotting generals through one of the CIA’s most experienced and versatile operatives, an IndoChina veteran, Lieut. Col. Lucien Conein.

When anyone becomes a liability to the US, the US will get rid of them. Similarly, the US envoy in Sri Lanka would not be able to stop any changed US decision in Washington either! The nod was given to the South Vietnamese military whom US already had links too.

Diem and his brother were thus captured & assassinated on 1 November 1963. Ironically, 3 weeks later US President Kennedy himself was assassinated. But, there was no relief for the Buddhist majority, US became more involved in Vietnam.

Ever since the Ranil-Maithri Government came to power helped by US & India, the majority Buddhists & their heritage had been a key target. Funds were withdrawn, Buddhist priests were arrested on flimsy charges & put into prison without bail, Buddhist sites were attacked & desecrated with little or no international reaction or condemnation, Buddhist heritage sites were being turned into multicultural sites, attempts to change the constitution with insidious attempts to remove the foremost place given to Buddhism in Article 9 are just a handful of anti-Buddhist actions. Going overboard with the latest announcement to ban Vesak pandols requires the present government to refer to Vietnam & how US-propped President Diem lost his legitimacy when he alienated the Buddhists. Diem planted the seeds of his own downfall & the actions of both the Sri Lankan President & Prime Minister are taking that same self-destructive path. Diem was hailed as the miracle man” of Southeast Asia just as the PM was promoted as Mr. Clean a fast waning title.

It is prudent that we step back in time to Ceylon during Diem’s rule. L.H. Mettananda, leader of the Bauddha Jatika Balavegaya (BJB) and N.Q. Dias key members of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government were all vociferous in their speeches on the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam. Mrs. Bandaranaike took a bold stance by instructing her envoy R S S Gunawardena to speak on behalf of the Buddhists of Vietnam at the UN which led to a fact finding mission headed by Gunawardena proceeding to Vietnam in October 1963 which became a key trigger that led to President Kennedy deciding to depose of Diem just days later.

Returning to the present announcement by the Ranil-Maithri Government to ban Vesak pandols and then immediately afterwards reverse their statement clearly indicates that this Government does not know what it is doing or the Government is being advised by some dimwits whose objectives to alienate and remove Buddhism is turning an already unpopular Government into a laughing stock by its actions. Vesak is celebrated even as a UN holiday since 1999 thanks to the initiative of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Therefore, the present Yahapalana government are advised to be mindful of their actions as history does repeat & their current friends are likely to be their worst enemies.