Maha Thray Sithu U Thant (January 22, 1909 – November 25, 1974) was a Burmese diplomat and the third secretary-general of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971. He was chosen for the post when his predecessor Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in an airplane crash in September 1961.
Thant had a strongly held belief that humankind needed to employ practical application of the teachings of the great religious leaders, particularly the moral and spiritual aspects of life including love, compassion, tolerance, modesty and humility in order to fashion a decent and livable society.
'U' is an honorific in Burmese, roughly equal to 'Mister.' Thant was the only name he used publicly. In Burmese he was known as Pantanaw U Thant, a reference to his home town of Pantanaw.
Thant was born in Pantanaw, Lower Burma to U Po Hnit and Daw Nan Thaung. He was the eldest of four sons in a family of well-to-do landowners and rice merchants. Thant and all three of his brothers became distinguished public servants. His father had helped establish The Sun (Thuriya) newspaper in Rangoon and was also a founding member of the Burma Research Society. When U Po Hnit died, a series of inheritance disputes forced Thant's mother and her four children into difficult financial times.
As a young person, Thant aspired to be a journalist. He published his first article in English when he was just 16 years old. The article was printed in Burma Boy, a publication of the Burma Boy Scouts Association.
He was educated at the National High School in Pantanaw and at Yangon University, Rangoon, where he studied history. Thant graduated in 1929 at the age of 20.
After university, Thant returned to Pantanaw to teach at the National School. Thant ranked first on the all-Burma teacher certification exam. He became headmaster by the time he was 25.
The income from his teaching job helped to support his mother and allowed his younger brothers to continue their education.
Thant became close friends with future prime minister U Nu, who was from neighboring Maubin and the local superintendent of schools.
In addition to teaching, Thant regularly contributed to several newspapers and magazines, under the pen name “Thilawa.” He also translated a number of books, including one on the League of Nations, the organization that preceded the United Nations.
Thant's friend, U Nu, returned to Rangoon University to study law in 1934. This gave Thant the opportunity to assume the role of school superintendent in addition to headmaster. Thant's reputation among educators grew through his membership in the Textbook Committee for Burma Schools, the Council of National Education and the Burma Research Society. During 1935, his name entered the public eye through letters to the newspapers he wrote with Aung San, the up-and-coming nationalist leader.
Thant married Daw Thein Tin. They had a daughter, Aye Aye Thant.
During the Second World War, while Burma was occupied by Japanese forces, there was a time when Thant served as secretary of the Education Reorganization Committee. He grew tired of this role and returned to teaching in Pantanaw.
Thant's good friend, U Nu, became vice president of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) in 1945. He convinced Thant to leave his home in Pantanaw and assume leadership of publicity for the AFPFL. Thant was soon promoted to head of the press section of the Information Department for AFPFL.
Thant was so successful in his role that when Nu became the prime minister of newly-independent Burma, he appointed Thant as director of broadcasting in 1948. In the following year he was appointed secretary to the government of Burma in the Ministry of Information.
From 1951 to 1957, Thant was secretary to the prime minister, writing speeches for Nu, arranging his foreign travel, and meeting foreign visitors. He also took part in a number of international conferences. Thant was the secretary of the first Asian-African summit in 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia, which gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement. Thant was a key leader in Burmese political affairs. During this entire period, he was Nu's closest confidante and advisor. Nu rarely made a major decision without the agreement of Thant.
From 1957 to 1961, Thant was Burma's permanent representative to the United Nations. He became actively involved in negotiations over Algerian independence. In 1960 the Burmese government awarded him the title Maha Thray Sithu as a commander in the Pyidaungsu Sithu Thingaha Order (similar to an order of knights).
Thant began serving as acting secretary-general of the United Nations on November 3, 1961. He had been unanimously appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council, to fill the unexpired term of Dag Hammarskjöld. He was unanimously appointed secretary-general by the General Assembly on November 30, 1962, for a term of office ending November 3, 1966. During this first term, Thant was widely credited for his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and for ending the civil war in the Congo.
Although he didn't seek it, Thant was appointed for a second term as secretary-general by the General Assembly on December 2, 1966 on the unanimous recommendation of the Security Council. His term of office continued until his retirement on December 31, 1971. During his time in office, he presided over the entry of dozens of new Asian and African states into the United Nations and was a firm opponent of apartheid in South Africa. He also established many of the UN's development and environmental agencies, funds and programs, including the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN University, UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the UN Environmental Program.
He had also led many successful though now largely forgotten mediation efforts, for example in Yemen in 1962 and Bahrain in 1968. In each case, war would have provoked a wider regional conflict, and it was Thant's quiet mediation which prevented war.
Unlike his two predecessors, Thant retired on speaking terms with all the major powers. In 1961 when he was first appointed, the Soviet Union had tried to insist on a troika formula of three secretaries-general, one representing each Cold War bloc, something which would have maintained equality in the United Nations between the superpowers. By 1966, when Thant was reappointed, the Security Council voted unanimously, affirming the secretary-generalship and his good works, a clear tribute to Thant's work.
The 1967 Six-Day War between Arab countries and Israel, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971 leading to the birth of Bangladesh all took place during his tenure as secretary-general.
He was widely criticized in the U.S. and Israel for agreeing to pull out UN troops from the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, responding to a request from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In fact, countries such as India and Yugoslavia, which had contributed troops, had already agreed to pull them out. Thant tried to persuade Nasser not to go to war with Israel by flying to Cairo in a last minute peace effort.
His good relationship with the U.S. government deteriorated rapidly when he publicly criticized American conduct in the Vietnam War. His secret attempts at direct peace talks between the governments of the United States and Vietnam were eventually rejected by the Johnson Administration.
Thant followed unidentified flying object reports with some interest. In 1967, he arranged for American atmospheric physicist Dr. James E. McDonald to speak before the UN's Outer Space Affairs Group regarding UFOs.
On January 23, 1971, Thant categorically announced that "under no circumstances" would he be available for a third term as secretary-general. For many weeks, the UN Security Council was deadlocked over the search for a successor before finally settling on Kurt Waldheim to succeed Thant on December 21, 1971.
In his farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly, Thant said that he felt a "great sense of relief bordering on liberation" on relinquishing the "burdens of office." In an editorial published around December 27, 1971 praising Thant, The New York Times stated that "the wise counsel of this dedicated man of peace will still be needed after his retirement." The editorial was entitled "The Liberation of U Thant."
By this time Burma was ruled by a military government which refused him any honors. The Burmese president at the time, Ne Win, was jealous of Thant's international stature and the respect that was accorded him by the Burmese populace. Win also resented Thant's close links with the democratic government of Nu, which had been overthrown by Win in a coup d'etat on March 2, 1962. Win ordered that Thant be buried without any official involvement or ceremony.
From the United Nations headquarters in New York, Thant's body was flown back to Rangoon but no honor guard or high ranking officials were on hand at the airport when the coffin arrived.
On December 5, 1974, the day of Thant's funeral, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Rangoon to pay their last respects to their distinguished countryman. His coffin was displayed at Rangoon's Kyaikasan race track for a few hours before the scheduled burial.
The coffin of Thant was then snatched by a group of students just before it was scheduled to leave for burial in an ordinary Rangoon cemetery. The student demonstrators buried Thant on the former grounds of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), which Win had dynamited and destroyed on July 8, 1962.
During the period of December 5 through December 11, 1974, the student demonstrators built a temporary mausoleum for Thant on the grounds of the RUSU and gave anti-government speeches. In the early morning hours of December 11, 1974, government troops stormed the campus, killed some of the students guarding the makeshift mausoleum, removed Thant's coffin, and reburied it at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda, where it has remained.
Upon hearing of the storming of the Rangoon University campus and the forcible removal of Thant's coffin, many people rioted in the streets of Rangoon. Martial law was declared in Rangoon and the surrounding metropolitan areas. What has come to be known as the “U Thant Crisis” was crushed by the Burmese government.
Thant's vision for the U.N. University involved establishing an organization with the purpose of researching pressing global issues and promoting "international understanding both at the political and cultural levels." The U.N. University was finally established in Tokyo in 1975. Dedication of the U.N.U. Lecture Series to Thant is a reflection of the university's continued efforts to encourage the exchange of ideas regarding the U.N.'s role in addressing shared global challenges.
In 1978, Thant's memoirs, View from the UN, were published posthumously. The original publisher was Doubleday Publishing Company.
Belmont Island in the East River across from United Nations headquarters, was unofficially renamed U Thant Island and dedicated to the late secretary-general's legacy. Also, the embassy road, Jalan U Thant in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is named after him.
Thant's only grandson, Thant Myint-U, is an historian and a former senior official for the UN's Department of Political Affairs. He is also the author of The River of Lost Footsteps, in part a biography of Thant. In 2006, Thant Myint-U was a fellow at the International Peace Academy. He has followed in his grandfather's footsteps by working for peace, devoting himself to research in UN Secretariat reform, post-conflict peacebuilding and strengthening international partnerships.
Aye Aye Thant, Thant's daughter, founded the U Thant Institute to advance her father's "One World" philosophy. One of the activities of the institute is promoting friendships across cultures.
All links retrieved January 5, 2016.
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