06 Jul The Last Days of U Thant

Written by Professor Tyn Myint-U Published in Features Read 2984 times


This is an edited extraction from one of the chapters of the author’s forthcoming book, “Mandalay Born in New York.” The author is the son-in-law of the late United Nations Secretary General U Thant.

September in New York is a cool and pleasant month, as it brings the last days of summer and the first days of autumn. And U Thant and our family enjoyed the home the former Secretary General bought in suburban New York following his retirement from the UN in 1971. With two acres of land, it had a swimming pool with a slowly dripping waterfall surrounded by weeping cherry trees and miniature bamboo plants. However, September 1973 proved an ominous month for U Thant. That month, U Thant noticed a lesion in his mouth. It proved to be cancerous, and just over a year later, in November 1974, Burma’s most renowned international diplomat was dead. He was 65.

But despite U Thant’s passing, his symbolism for the people of his homeland remained as strong as ever, and the return of his body to Burma and funeral rights the following month ushered in weeks of political maneuverings and confrontation. Having accompanied the body back to Burma, my family and I – not to mention the body of the deceased Secretary General – found ourselves at the heart of a multi-faceted political tug-of-war around the remains of U Thant.

Immediately upon arrival at Mingaladon Airport in Rangoon at the close of November, we were met by a huge crowd of people gathered to pay their respects to U Thant. It turned out that people not only from Rangoon but also from towns and cities around the country were converging on the capital to pay their final respects to U Thant and to showcase their anger toward the government, which had neglected Burma’s international statesman for several years. Amidst this commotion and electrifying atmosphere, I was surprised to learn that no one from the government was present. I was later told that an order was issued to that effect. U Ne Win, the then Head-of-State, was apparently concerned that the mass gathering might turn into a political rally. His fears would prove well founded.

Throngs of people lined the route as the body of U Thant was driven from the airport to the Kyikekasan Ground (formerly the Rangoon Turf Club). It was a moving experience to see the sea of people, some crying, and the women kowtowing with their scarves placed on the ground. When we arrived at the Kyikekasan Ground, the body was placed on top of a tier in a special pavilion built for this occasion and draped with a UN flag brought from New York.

As expected, the Kyikekasan Ground was huge and could hold thousands of people. Many people and organizations laid wreaths before the casket and a mound of flowers rose in front of a stand with a picture of U Thant. We were surrounded by family and friends in the pavilion where people came and hugged us, saying softly how sad they were to have lost the great man of Burma. The lying in state lasted from December 1 to 5, the government having given U Khant, a brother of U Thant, all necessary assistance to make arrangements. However, one thing missing was the security detail for the casket. To address this shortcoming, young men from the Red Cross were requested to safeguard the casket, though security guards for the public remained absent. At one point amidst this commotion, a couple of young men wearing lwe`-eaiks (Burmese shoulder bags) approached me while walking and said something that I could not quite hear. Before I could ask them who they were, they disappeared quickly into the crowd. Who were they? Were they intelligence, students, politicians or just angry citizens?

During this time we were told that we were given a plot in Kyandaw Cemetery, which was a common burial ground for everyone living in Rangoon. Earlier, we visited the cemetery and discovered the plot was small and next to the tomb of Daw Khin May Than, the wife of U Ne Win. We requested a larger plot. I was also warned by an old friend, who was the chief engineer at City Hall, to make certain that the tomb was secure, so that people could not move the body. Additionally, there were rumors that U Thant should not be buried in the common cemetery. Students, it was said, wanted to snatch the body and bury it in a location they deemed more respectable. Some people even wanted him to be buried at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Meanwhile, there were also rumors that the government was planning to take the body away, cremate it and discard it in the Irrawaddy River, presumably so that there would be no place for people to gather.

As rumors continued to circulate, after five days it came time to move the body. Yet, no hearse was seen coming from the place where U Thant lay in state. Then, all of a sudden, we heard someone speaking over a loudspeaker. I got out of the car and U Khant’s son Ko Baw followed me. When I went up a knoll, I saw U Khant speaking to the students, who were obviously dissatisfied with the funeral arrangements. When I saw the student crowd surrounding U Khant, my heart was pounding like it never had before. I was curious about what was going on, but as I was about to go to see U Khant, Ko Baw pulled me back and asked me not to go. He said the students might ask me to accompany them and we would not know what they had in mind. The students had planned this and they were executing their plan. I realized what the situation was and went back to the car where my wife was waiting. The students intended to take the body away and entomb it in their own mausoleum that was to be built on the ground where the Rangoon University Student Union was dynamited by the government in 1962.

After a while, someone, probably a student, started to rock our car. We told him that we were U Thant’s family, waiting for the hearse. He did not say anything and the students went on rocking our car. I realized that the students wanted us to go away so that they could take over the field. We also realized that the coffin was about to be taken away by the students in a pick-up truck that carried flowers, despite U Khant’s pleading not to take the body away and let the procession take place as planned. Students, some 3,000 strong, were marching into the Ground and were ready to follow the pick-up truck that would carry the casket. By then we thought we should leave the Ground. We were told that the students did not want to use the hearse, the same hearse that was used for the earlier funeral of U Ne Win’s wife.

The casket was transported in a long procession and finally reached the Convocation Hall of the Rangoon Arts and Science University. Students followed the car carrying the casket in a long line of three students abreast, chanting along the route. People came out and watched and some signaled their support. Having reached the Convocation Hall, monks gathered around the body reciting verses of Buddhist scripture, while students with red headbands guarded the monks. By now, there were thousands of students on the campus.

Some students went behind the stage of Convocation Hall to discuss what to do next and also to organize a Funeral Committee. But as they had no leaders, trying to pick committee members was, as always, an issue. Eventually, they got organized and formed a committee. However, in addition to this group of students, there was another group assembling – the Rangoon Institute of Technology Group. I did not know who they were. But being a rival group, they planned to build their own mausoleum at the former Student Union site.

At this point we decided to write a letter to the students. Aye, being the daughter of U Thant, wrote that the body could soon decay and we would like to have it returned to us. But we did not know where to send the letter. Later, U Khant found Sayadaw U Thilasara of Thayettaw Monastery, one of the members of a group of monks charged with giving advice to the students. Through the sayadaw we contacted the students who were actively working behind the scenes.

The campus had by now become the hub of activity regarding the casket of U Thant, and no one could enter the main campus after dark, as the gates were closed. The entire main campus had an iron fence surrounding it. In the morning, only the main gate leading to Convocation Hall along Adipadi Road was open. Yet, despite these limitations, students and the public continued to pour into the campus grounds upon learning that they were welcome to come and pay their respects to U Thant. Soon, the campus grounds were overflowing with mourners.

As the campus standoff continued, on the morning of December 6 the Rangoon Division People’s Council summoned me and my family to meet with them. Apparently, the State Council chaired by U Ne Win did not know what to do with the students, and being a UN-related incident, the State Council was cautious and did not want to hastily enforce any drastic action. I arrived with other relatives of U Thant at 10 a.m. at City Hall, where the People’s Council office was located, the same building where I used to attend Mr. and Miss University Contests in the early 1950s. We were ushered in to meet with Chairman U Thein Aung and the council members.

U Thein Aung’s first question was, “What would you like to do?” U Khant reacted immediately, saying that the situation was not what we could do, but rather how we could go about getting the remains back to the family so that the funeral could be arranged as early as possible. Aye became furious after listening to U Thein Aung. She retorted, “The responsibility is with the government, not with the family. We are deeply concerned that the remains of U Thant could be destroyed.”

As the meeting could not arrive at any solution except to contact the students of the Convocation Hall Group, we left City Hall. We then put our heads together about our next move. We decided that U Thant’s younger brother, U Thaung, and I should go to Convocation Hall with the help of the sayadaw who was close to the student leaders. So, late that same evening we were taken to the campus by a student and led through a small opening of the bent iron fence near Inya Lake. No one saw us in the dark. The campus appeared deserted, with no one was in sight. The young man took us straight to Convocation Hall. As we entered the hall, we saw monks surrounding the coffin and students with red headbands surrounding the monks. We paid our respects to both the monks and U Thant. We were then taken to the back of the stage where some students were talking to each other, probably drawing up strategy. We told a couple of students nearby that we would like to have negotiations with the government so that we could have a proper funeral for U Thant. We also told them that we were greatly concerned about the outcome. The students talked amongst themselves, after which one of them said that they understood our feelings and agreed to attend negotiations with the government, providing the family of U Thant served as moderators.

Before we left the campus we were taken to a microphone and U Thaung was unexpectedly asked to speak. He made a few remarks, briefly and cautiously. Afterward, I was given the mike. Throughout this time, I was so excited to see the huge mass of students and people waiting to hear speaker after speaker. Day after day the speakers spoke against the government, releasing frustrations built up for many years. When I was introduced as Dr. Tyn Myint-U, son-in-law of U Thant, I saw one of the students jump, so delighted that I was going to speak. Someone shouted, “Please give a fiery speech!” What could I say? I could only say thank you for their reverence toward U Thant, and that certainly they would be remembered in history as brave young men. They must have been so disappointed with what I said.

Before we left, we reminded the student leaders who accompanied us to the gate to make certain that they sent representatives to City Hall to negotiate with the government so that there would be a proper funeral for U Thant. They were polite young men who acknowledged our request and said that they would be at City Hall the following day, December 7. As we were escorted out of Convocation Hall, we saw a couple of young men behind a window, and I was told that they were government intelligence agents who were sent to spy on the student leaders and learn the situation of the events. The students said they were going to kill the spies. I strongly requested the student leaders not to execute them, as U Thant would not approve of any killing under any circumstances. They nodded their heads. They added that some suspected people were not permitted to enter the campus and were asked to leave without being arrested.

Having met with them, many students assumed this to be an indication that the family of U Thant supported their cause, which at the onset was at least partially to protest against the government for not allowing for a proper burial site fit for the former UN Secretary General. Since the body was taken to the university campus, thousands and thousands of people had visited Convocation Hall and paid their respects to U Thant. It was sometimes like a festival, with throngs of students and citizens mingling over the grounds. Food vendors even began to set up their stalls outside the campus on the pavement of University Avenue. The Funeral Committee began to collect funds for expenses incurred in the maintenance of the campus and cost to buy food for the students involved in these affairs. Some donated money, while some women took off their jewelry and placed these items in the donation box. Others sent food packages and drinks. It was an emotional sight. The students received thousands of kyat of donations. Yet, at the same time, the actions of the students became increasingly politically oriented. They were by now denouncing the government non-stop. The military stayed away, but troops were stationed nearby and ready to close in. Gradually, some of the students became more militant and denounced the leaders of the government, and U Ne Win in particular, for dynamiting the Student Union in 1962, killing the students who were inside.

On December 7, we contacted Chairman U Thein Aung and informed him of the student leaders who would be willing to sit with us at the City Hall in the afternoon. We then conveyed the message to the student leaders, confirming our meeting. In the afternoon, three student leaders and the Council representatives were there at the City Hall office. Our family was also there to mediate. I directed the first question to the student leaders, which was whether the coffin was kept in a cool place, as the body could decay in no time. One of the students assured us that they had taken great care of the coffin. Then U Thein Aung asked the family what we would like to do. U Khant responded that after negotiations, we would like to have the body buried in an appropriate resting place. The day before, the government had stated that Cantonment Park was now to be the burial ground for U Thant, and the information was sent to the family, student leaders and the press.

At this stage, the primary demands of the students were three-fold: 1) U Thant must be buried in Cantonment Park at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda; 2) the funeral must be a state funeral; and 3) amnesty must be given to all students and people involved in the events of the previous days. As soon as a student representative presented these three demands, the chairman asked us to take a break. Apparently he had to report directly to the State Council chaired by U Ne Win and no decision could be taken without his approval. The students also requested that any agreement reached had to be approved by the Rangoon Institute of Technology Group. Moreover, they wanted to keep the mausoleum that they built at the former Student Union Building site as a symbol of peace and respect for U Thant.

During the meeting, I noticed that one of the student representatives was taken away, perhaps to another room. I did not know what they did to him, probably asked him to be a government agent or to glean from him the names of the student leaders or something else.

The meeting continued and I requested that the students be given amnesty. We discussed what exactly this meant, and finally the government agreed that the students would be given amnesty. When the issue of a state versus public funeral was deliberated, knowing that the government would not agree to a state funeral, I confided to the student leaders that U Thant was already retired from the UN and therefore a public funeral would suffice. Coming from a family member, the students agreed and, of course, U Thein Aung had no objection. At one point, when I mentioned that the whole affair of U Thant’s burial was getting political, the chairman immediately stopped the meeting and asked us to take a break and have monhingar, a favorite Burmese delicacy of noodles with fish gravy. He again retired to the back room.

The meeting was reconvened, and U Thein Aung reminded us that the government had already given permission to bury U Thant’s remains at Cantonment Park as demanded by the students. With that statement, the three-point agreement was reached, with the procession to begin at the Student Union. I told the student representatives that in honor of the students who built the mausoleum, the casket should be placed in front of it. I also told the meeting that the family would pay their last respects to U Thant at the site before the funeral procession began. All agreed to my suggestions. U Thein Aung promised that the People’s Council would give all necessary assistance for the funeral procession.

The government, of course, all along wanted nothing better than to pronounce that the whole affair was political. And I had unintentionally given them the bait they were waiting for. The next day, newspapers printed that U Khant had said that the whole affair was becoming political. The government falsely attributed this statement to the elder U Khant, as it carried more weight than coming from me. There were news flashes in the papers that U Khant had said that there were politics involved in the U Thant incident. I was surprised at how the media could manipulate news, even though it was completely controlled by the government.

On the night of December 7, U Thaung and I, as requested by the student leaders, went to Mandalay Hall where the Institute of Technology students were waiting for us. Students from the Convocation Hall Group were also there. As the representatives of the Convocation Hall Group were the only ones who participated in the negotiations, the students of the Technology Group felt left out, as did the monks. Both groups also wanted to have their voices in the matter. We told them what went on at the negotiation table and that the agreement was reached. But the Technology students were not satisfied. It seemed a couple of students who were politically inclined were working behind the scenes to destroy the agreement. Then, someone suggested that we should vote as to whether to accept the agreement. U Thaung and I voted for the agreement and the three students of the Convocation Hall Group also voted for the agreement, along with three monks. The three Technology students voted no. The agreement reached at City Hall was thus approved by 8 to 3. Nonetheless, the Technology students remained adamant that they wanted to inter the body of U Thant in the mausoleum that they built, despite the agreement. The audience, mostly comprising Technology students, looked unhappy with the result of the vote. While they were talking to one another, we quickly left the hall and returned home.

The date of the funeral was set for Sunday, December 8, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Despite previous agreements, we were also told that arrangements had been made for the family to go to Mandalay Hall, across from the student built mausoleum, to pay their respects prior to the funeral procession. The coffin, we were informed, was to be brought to the site of the Cantonment Park mausoleum from Convocation Hall by students passing it one over another, a distance of about half a mile. When we arrived at Mandalay Hall, U Khant and U Thaung took over the microphone. However, when U Khant spoke the volume of the microphone was lowered. I became suspicious and looked at the amplifier and noticed a student manipulating the volume. I began to sense that something dubious was afoot. Soon after, our family left Mandalay Hall and walked toward the student-constructed mausoleum. The casket was in front of the mausoleum with a picture of U Thant. A couple of white umbrellas, traditionally reserved for royal families or persons of distinguished stature, sat atop the casket, which was draped with the UN flag. A coconut and a bunch of bananas for the blessing of the nats (spirits) were also on display.

As we returned to Mandalay Hall, people on a truck carrying food for the students suddenly started to shout a much-used political slogan, “Ah ye daw bon aung ya myi” (“Victory for the revolutionary cause”). I shouted at the family members to retreat to the nearest street. We all ran downstairs and toward Prome Road, where we were fortunate to find a restaurant in the campus that was open to the street. We rushed out of the campus and stopped a couple taxis and asked the passengers to get out, saying that U Thant’s family needed urgent transportation. Two taxis emptied their passengers. We hopped in and went home. We presumed that the body would be interred in the mausoleum that the students built.

That day I telephoned U Thein Aung, but someone else answered. I told him the account of what had happened. He told me that the students broke the agreement and that I no longer had any responsibilities. He said the government would now take over. On the campus the denunciations of U Ne Win and other officials were rampant, as people continued to swell the campus grounds. Now, the activities of the students and those inside the campus grounds were more like an uprising. Students had earlier told me that they had the support of the UN, but they were not well informed as to the mission of the UN. Some of the students went to offices of the UN agencies and asked for support for their movement. They asked for UN flags, but were refused.

For three days the government waited while they prepared to make their move. The campus was surrounded by troops at a distance hidden from the public. Some students became even more daring and militant. On December 11,at 2 a.m., the military broke into the campus grounds with a bulldozer, a crane and tear gas, as thousands of students lay unaware and asleep. The students and the people inside the campus were all arrested. Nevertheless, I interviewed many students and other persons present that night and learned of no hard evidence that any student was killed by the government troops, despite the rumors. After the mausoleum was carefully drilled through, the coffin was retrieved. The mausoleum was then immediately bulldozed and the land was completely cleared. Nothing was there the next morning, just as the government had done in July 1962 with the Student Union.

At about 4 a.m. on the following morning, we were awakened by a phone call at the Inya Lake Hotel, to where we had since relocated. I picked up the phone and someone answered. He asked us to come down. When I asked the caller who he was, he said that he was one of the persons involved in the negotiations between the students and the government, but I did not recognize his name. I thought he had come to arrest me. I told him that it was too early and I would see him later. As soon as the conversation was over I received another phone call. This time it was the telephone operator. She asked, “Saya (Sir), is it alright?” She said it with a concerned voice and then immediately hung up. I became even more suspicious of the man who called me earlier. Then, when I was just about to lie down in bed, another person knocked on my door. He said “Saya, Saya” and I answered, “Yes, who is it?” I did not hear from him again. His voice, if I guessed correctly, was the student treasurer who handed over 200,000 kyat to U Thaung. That money was given to the government by U Thaung to build the present mausoleum. I never knew happened to that young man, though when I recently attended an 88 uprising ceremony, someone told me that he was there, though I did not see him.

After about half an hour we got yet another call, this time from U Khant and U Thaung, saying that they also received calls from the government and that we were instructed to go to the place where the mausoleum was to be built in Cantonment Park. At 6 a.m. we arrived at the designated location. The coffin was there in a trench. We met U Thein Aung and another person. I asked U Thein Aung whether any students had died. He showed me his wet handkerchief and said that they used tear gas to clear the students at the site and that thousands of students and people on the campus at the time were arrested. Others were arrested at their homes. After everyone arrived, the coffin was opened to let us verify that U Thant’s body was intact and in good condition, but there was no longer any UN flag draped over the casket. A minute or so later, a truck arrived and poured concrete over the coffin in the trench. We then left for our hotel.

Two hours later, some people, most likely students assisted by others, set a taxi on fire in Kamaryut, a neighborhood next to the university. At 8:30 a.m. U Ne Win declared a state of emergency in Rangoon Division, proclaiming military administration and martial law. Following the proclamation the powers were immediately transferred to authorities in Rangoon Command, who set up a tribunal and sentenced those caught rioting to three years in jail. As soon as news spread of these latest events, students and others burnt the nearby party headquarters as well as cars and other government buildings. Soldiers were sent in and began shooting at those participating in the ongoing street riots.

We grew concerned as to whether the rioting would spread across the nation. Earlier, U Khant, who knew U Ne Win personally, wrote a letter to him. U Ne Win’s reply was that we should stay out of politics. A group of men also came to U Khant’s house while we were visiting him and said they were sent by President U San Yu and that the government was going to sue us for bringing U Thant’s body to Burma without any permission. However, after I told them that I had sent a telegram to U Ne Win from New York, they grew silent and left. It was obvious that U Ne Win did not inform any of his colleagues of my telegram.

By this time we knew that we would not be able to assist with whatever came to transpire in Rangoon and throughout Burma, and determined to return to New York on December 22. In New York, there was no news of the events rocking Rangoon. We also discovered that telegrams sent to the UN Chef de Cabinet and other international dignitaries had been intercepted by the Burmese government, as they were returned to us in New York upon our arrival from Burma. The government obviously did not want information on the actions of the students reaching the outside world. The end result was that many students were jailed, and we will never know how many students perished during the riots in the aftermath of the government’s retrieval of U Thant’s casket from the students’ mausoleum.

These were the tumultuous last days of U Thant, a man who would have been appalled at the death and violence that resulted from his untimely death at the age of 65. But the admiration and esteem associated with the former UN Secretary General remains untarnished. Throughout Burma, the legacy of U Thant as a man of peace who worked unceasingly for international understanding and harmony remains.

This Article first appeared in the July 3, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

Last modified on Sunday, 06 July 2014 18:36