Myanmar takes pride in having two historic people of a kind that no other ASEAN member state has until now: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate in Peace and U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations. (Note: Lê Đức Thọ from then “North Vietnam” did not accept the Nobel Peace Prize)
Widely regarded as a genius, U Thant is revered by Myanmar people especially scholars and students. U Thant was a native of Pantanaw, a town of Ayeyarwady Region in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and was born on 22 January 1909. He graduated from the then Rangoon College (Yangon University). After graduation, he returned to his hometown Pantanaw and worked as a senior teacher at the National High School Pantanaw. Eventually he became the headmaster of the same school. He also wrote articles in several newspapers and magazines under the pen name “Thilawa”
In 1948, Burma was liberated from the British rule and his close friend U Nu became the Prime Minister. U Thant then became secretary to U Nu from 1951 to 1957. From 1957 to 1961, he became Burma’s permanent representative to the United Nations. Subsequently, after the tragic event of the second and preceding United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, he was appointed as the acting Secretary-General of the United Nations on 3 November 1961. On 30 November 1961, the General Assembly unanimously approved him as the UN Secretary-General. As such, U Thant became the first Asian to assume such a politically paramount position and served the office from 30 November 1961 to 31 December 1971 – the longest in the history of UN Secretaries-General so far.
During his two terms of service as the UN Secretary-General, he attained several achievements in maintaining world peace. One of them is his role in “Cuban Missile Crisis” which could have led to a nuclear war with disastrous outcomes. At such critical moment, U Thant acted as a mediator and his keen diplomacy led to promising negotiations between the two superpowers: the USA and the then Soviet Union (Russia). For this event and several peacekeeping efforts during his first term, U Thant was offered the 1965 Nobel Peace prize to which he merely responded with a question: Is not the Secretary-General merely doing his job when he works for peace? In the end, the prize instead went to UNICEF.
On 25 November 1974, U Thant died of lung cancer in New York. His body was repatriated to Myanmar and, today, his mausoleum lies peacefully in the Kandawmin Garden Mausolea – a mausoleum complex near the southern gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Myanmar people – except some ethnic groups with Christianity background – do not have a family name. By U Thant, “U” means “Mr” and “Thant” denotes his given name. This naming culture causes a significant frustration whenever we have to fill out a form, be it during immigration check, registration process or whatever process that demands a last name.
(1) Lewis, Flora (24 October 1973). “Tho Rejects Nobel Prize, Citing Vietnam Situation”. The New York Times.
(3) A. Walter Dorn (2007). “U Thant: Buddhism in Action”. In Kille, Kent. The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership
By Thein Min Swe, ASEAN Correspondent from Myanmar