Thich Tri Quang, a charismatic Buddhist monk who helped bring down US-backed governments in South Vietnam during the war-torn 1960s and pushed for a democratic nation with freedom of religion, died Nov. 8 in the city of Hue. He was 95.
His death was announced by the Tu Dam Pagoda in Hue, where he had lived quietly for decades after the end of the Vietnam War, occupying himself by translating Buddhist texts into Vietnamese.
Mr. Tri Quang was a powerful orator who galvanized Buddhists to demand a greater role in public affairs at a time when Roman Catholics dominated the South Vietnamese government.
“His eyes looked very strong, like the eyes of the tiger,” said Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun and lifelong peace activist who knew him well. “He was a powerful voice.”
Mr. Tri Quang grew so influential that Time magazine put him on its cover in 1966, calling him South Vietnam’s “mysterious High Priest of Disorder” and describing him as having “an unerring instinct for politics, a perfect sense of timing and a control over his followers that borders on the charismatic.”
For decades, Mr. Tri Quang was a seen as a threat by whoever held power.
He was arrested by the French colonial government in the 1950s and by South Vietnamese governments in the 1960s.
Seen as the mastermind of the Buddhist protest movement, he took refuge for more than two months in the US Embassy in Saigon in 1963 as South Vietnamese forces raided temples and arrested Buddhist leaders.
At times he was accused of being a spy for the CIA; at other times he was accused of secretly working for the Communist north. But colleagues and supporters said neither was true. Rather, they said, he was an ardent nationalist and Buddhist.
“You cannot call him CIA; you cannot call him pro-Communist,” Chan Khong said in an interview. “He was a pure humanitarian working for Vietnam, for the reconciliation of both sides.”
Mr. Tri Quang condemned communism and advocated democracy, calling for elections to a national assembly that would have given Buddhists a greater say in government affairs.
“I, like all educated Buddhists, do not like communism because it is atheistic,” Mr. Tri Quang said in 1963. “But I fear it is coming here because this government is unpopular and always seems to do the wrong thing.”
He was born Pham Quang in 1923 in Quang Binh province in an area of central Vietnam later controlled by North Vietnam. He later adopted the title thich, meaning “the venerable.”
He studied Buddhism in Hue, the predominantly Buddhist city and historic capital that became his main base of support.
After he was ordained as a monk, he was a lecturer at a Buddhist institute in Hanoi, edited a Buddhist magazine, and founded a group called the Vietnamese Buddhist Association.
The French colonial government arrested him twice for having been in touch with rebel Viet Minh forces, who were fighting for independence.
In the 1960s, Mr. Tri Quang was said to have one brother who was a sergeant major in the South Vietnamese Army and another who was a police officer in North Vietnam.
As US influence grew, he built a strong following among Buddhists, especially in central Vietnam, who believed they were discriminated against by Catholic-controlled governments in Saigon.
Catholic rule represented a holdover from the colonial French era, when the spread of Catholicism was promoted.
Mr. Tri Quang’s influence in national affairs became clear during the rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam and a Catholic who initially had Washington’s backing.
“The Americans have good intentions, but they are at times stupid, and they pay too much attention to officials and not enough to the people,” Mr. Tri Quang said at the time. “Ho Chi Minh never attacks Buddhism. He just tries to undermine it. I respect him more; he is more shrewd and clever. He will destroy us first.”
Mr. Tri Quang and other Buddhists accused Diem of religious persecution and called for his ouster. Protests mounted, leading to the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc.
Soon after, having lost the support of the United States, Diem was ousted in a Washington-backed coup. He and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were assassinated.
Later, Mr. Tri Quang and the Buddhist movement were credited with bringing down three short-lived regimes.
By 1966, he was seen as a major political force and a leader of the opposition to President Nguyen Van Thieu and Prime Minister Ngyuen Cao Ky, who had seized power in a 1965 coup before later winning elections.
Mr. Tri Quang called for the ouster of Ky and accused Washington of obstructing democracy by supporting him. Ky, a flamboyant former fighter pilot, accused the monk of being a Communist.
South Vietnamese forces clashed with Buddhist protesters in central Vietnam, and at one point demonstrators were strafed by fighter-bombers.
Mr. Tri Quang went on a prolonged hunger strike to protest the government’s actions, and Ky sent troops to surround the Hue hospital where he was staying and bring him to Saigon.
Always slight, Mr. Tri Quang said his weight fell from 114 to 96 pounds during his hunger strike, which lasted about two weeks.
The Buddhist protests were eventually crushed.
In 1968, Mr. Tri Quang was arrested again and held for four months in “protective custody” after reports surfaced that the Viet Cong would try to install Buddhist leaders in a new government — a claim for which no evidence was made public.
One of his last public appearances before the Communist takeover was in 1975 at a protest calling for the ouster of Thieu.
Many of his followers were disappointed that he disappeared from public view after the Communists came to power.
Chan Khong, a disciple of anti-war Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, called Mr. Tri Quang a stubborn advocate for peace, democracy, and freedom of religion. “He was very courageous,” she said.