Peace Eludes U Thant
U Thant gave ten year of his life working for peace and goodwill among men, but he himself become the subject of a bloodbath that sent shock waves across the Burmese capital of Rangoon. What made this sad irony of history even sadder was that the famous mediator could barely utter a word as his body lay inert and helpless while blood flowed freely and violence raged unchecked around him, in his own motherland to which he had finally returned to rest in peace.
U Thant had served as Burma’s representative in the United Nations for three years before being unanimously elected to the post of the world’ highest body. This calm, serene-looking statesman, the first Asian to be entrusted with “the most impossible job in the world”, had dedicated his life to ward off the scourge of war and hunger and to promote peace and goodwill among mankind.
For his dedication, he had won accolades from fellow Asians and Westerners alike. Upon his death on November 25, 1974 at the age of 65, a Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesman had said “Thailand is very proud of U Thant for his contribution to world peace. The Thai Government recognises and praises his dedication……” President Gerald Ford of U.S.A. had called him “Above all……, a man of peace”.
Unprecedented honours were bestowed upon U Thant when he became the first person to lie in state at the UN Headquarters, his body being on view for 24 hours. The UN flag was flown at half-mast and an emergency meeting was postponed for 24 hours in honour of U Thant.
The Burmese people were extremely proud of U Thant and when his remains were flown in from New York on December 1, 1974, a huge throng packed Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport to receive the casket. There were U Thant’s relatives, foreign diplomats, students, monks, and laymen. However, the people who were most conspicuous by their absence were the high-ranking members of the regime which rules U Thant motherland.
Murmurs of indignation and shock rippled through the crowd over the apparent discourtesy. There were soon to find further evidence that the regime does not intend to give more than a perfunctory treatment to the remains of this illustrious son of Burma, and that the much-expected state funeral would never materialise.
In stark contrast to the unprecedented honours received at the UN.U Thant’s body lay under a hastily built pavilion in the middle of a dust-blown, sun-scorched suburban field which was formerly the Rangoon Turf Club. It is now called the Kyaikkasan Grounds and is used as an assembly site for government-engineered rallies. With a “ guard of honour ”, consisting of a handful of callous Red Cross youths, U Thant’s remains had lain for four days at the kyaikkasan Grounds during which rime thousands of people, including diplomats, had flocked to this distant field to pay their respects. December 5, 1974 was marked for U Thant’s funeral and internment at the Kyandaw cemetery, about four miles to the west.
By that day, students from Rangoon’s colleges, universities and institutes had formed funeral committees and approached bus associations for hire of buses to accompany the funeral cortege. They were, however, courteously informed by the bus operators that the regime had expressly forbidden them to hire any buses in connection with U Thant’s funeral.
Undeterred by this, the students then decided to rally at the Rangoon Arts & Science University ( RASU ) for a long trek to the Kyaikkasan Grounds. Students form various colleges, institutes and universities poured into the RASU campus amidst cheers and there were fresh bursts of cheers and elation when the Rangoon Institute of Technology students appeared on the scene with a few old Dodge Jeeps and loudspeakers.
This gathering has significance for the students. It was the first time that the students had assembled in thousands since the Ne Win regime dynamited the Students’ Union building on the campus on July 7, 1962, killing scores of students who were to the building. Many more were mowed down by machine guns when the students vehemently protested the dynamiting.With the Dodge Jeeps and loud speakers leading the procession, the students lined up three abreast and began march towards the Kyakkassan Ground. Through the loudspeakers, the students announced to the huge crowd of people who lined the route; “Dear respected elders, we, the students, are on our way to pay our tribute and accompany our beloved U Thant’ the Architect of Peace, on his last journey.”
The sympathetic crowd cheered the students and many were busy providing refreshments to the marching students. Shortly past noon on December 5, 1974 the students arrived at the Kyaikkasan Grounds and stood at attention on the dusty ground in the sweltering heat. The student representatives from each Institute laid their wreaths and paid their respects to U Thant’s remains. The students then stood at attention while Buddhist monks began chanting prayers and performing other funeral rites.
The burning heat and the dust-swept shelter-less atmosphere had, however, served only to intensify the gnawing dissatisfaction and resentment against the shabby and perfunctory treatment meted out to U Thant’s remains by the “regime”. “Why, why, they thought, “could the authorities not accord U Thant’s state funeral? ”Whispered consultation was taking place among the student leaders and the public sensed there was tension in the air.
The staid and mournful atmosphere suddenly shattered when the students shouted: “A mausoleum for the Father of Peace, that’s our goal.” The students had decided to take matters into their own hands to give their beloved U Thant a funeral befitting a world’s statesman and an illustrious son of Burma.
Using the loudspeakers, mounted on the Dodge Jeep, as their command post, the students requested everyone to leave the pavilion. The students then streamed into the pavilion and took their position around the casket. Through the loudspeaker, they announced to the public that they were going to take U Thant’s casket to the Rangoon Arts & Science University campus and built a “Peace Mausoleum”, for U Thant.
In order to request permission from U Thant’s relatives, his elder brother U Khant was invited to confer with the students’ representatives. U Khant, however, cautioned the students against taking any rash action and urged the students not to antagonize against the Government. Meanwhile there were clamours from the students and the public to escort the body to the University. U Thant’s casket then passed from shoulder to shoulder and lain atop the roof of a Toyota pick-up truck draped with wreaths. The procession led by students and Buddhist monks then wound its way to the University grounds.
U Thant’s casket was taken to the Convocation Hall of the university and placed on a dais where monks chanted prayers and students kept a vigil over the remains. The sprawling campus was filled with sea of humanity as people from all over the city came to pay their respects to U Thant. Outside the Convocation Hall, the students took turn atop a bonnet of a car to deliver “Hyde-park style” speeches against the regime.
“They call it democracy, but what they are actually doing benefits only a single party”. “On behalf of the people who are now facing hunger and privations, we, the students, would like to ask the Government, please care to look down from your heights. Do not ignore the people’s suffering and waste your time in buying cars and building bungalows for yourselves.”
A young college girl ended her speech with these words “I am deeply moved and overwhelmed by this opportunity to exercise the democratic freedom of speech. Should I be imprisoned for opening my heart to the injustices perpetrated by the regime, then so be it. I would then take consolation in the fact that I shall at least be assured of regular meals in the future.”
The huge crowd gave repeated and thunderous ovations as speaker after speaker stepped onto the makeshift podium, announced their names and the institutes of learning they belong to, and proceeded to roundly denounce the Government. The people had finally found a voice which echoed their feelings they had never dared to express.
They listened with awe and fear to the winds to speak on behalf of the down-trodden a and pathetic masses who had for thirteen long years suffered unwonted hardships, privations and oppression at the hands of a tyrannical regime. Old wounds, which had never healed during these miserable years, opened anew and held profusely as workers and people from all walks of life joined the students to express their sufferings.
Meanwhile, the students had formed an “ad hoc” funeral committee and announced to the public that they had sent a letter to the Government demanding a state funeral for U Thant and that if no reply was received by 4 p.m., the students, with the help of the people, would make their own funeral arrangements and build a “peace” mausoleum for U Thant. The speakers then resumed their “Hyde-Park” style speeches keeping one eye on the clock. This was on December 6, one day after U Thant’s remains were brought to the University.
When the deadline approached and the students found that the Government had turned a deaf ear to their demands, the students become more determined to go ahead with their plans.
Suddenly, the university campus bustled with a hive of activity. While speeches continued inside the Convocation Hall where U Thant’s body lay in state, scores of students were clearing the site of the dynamited old Students’ Union building where the mausoleum was to be built. Rangoon Institute of Technology students went to work drawing designs for the mausoleum and donations were being solicited from willing donors who, in many cases, took off their necklaces, rings, bangles and other valuable personal taken from the university library extension site, were being passed from hand to hand to the mausoleum site.
The extent of public sympathy was most touchingly demonstrated when and old lady, her face wrinkled with age and her body frail and bent, nevertheless insisted that she be allowed to carry a brick to the site as a token of merit. Public support did not end there either. Thousands of food parcels were donated by all and sundry, even from those who could hardly afford two square meals a day for themselves. There was one food parcel which contained all that the poor donor could afford; a bundle of cooked rice and a single banana. The students were deeply moved, but, nevertheless, ate the meal heartily.
At the Mausoleum site, bleary-eyed architectural and engineering students worked day night to keep construction work rolling. At the Convocation Hall, a student suicide squad with red headbands kept vigil. There were also combined teams of students and people vigilantes’ at all strategic places across the campus. A few government spies were detected and were bashed up by the students. In the meantime, more food parcels came pouring in to provide nourishment for the weary and exhausted students. Some of the parcels bore leaflets stating: “Young brothers, we believe and appreciate that what you are doing is just and right. Do keep up the good work right to the end.” In the satellite city of Okkalapa, about 6 miles from downtown, the people put a police station, which had been repeatedly harassing a citizen committee collecting food parcels from sympathetic residents from the area, on the torch.
On December 7, 1974, U Thant’s relatives invited representatives from students and monks for a meeting. There were seven student’s representatives, two monks, U Thant’s younger brother U Thaung, and U Thant’s son-in-law, Dr. Tin Myint Oo. During the meeting Thant’s brother produced a letter from the Government agreeing to provide an alternative site for U Thant’s Mausoleum. The site was to be at the Cantonment Garden, near the famed Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
He also said that the Government had agreed not to take any reprisals against the students. However there was no mention of the demand made by the students for a state funeral for U Thant. U Thaung also urged that funeral rites should begin next day at noon. U Thant’s son-in-law said that he had already drawn plans for a mausoleum and asked for co-operation from students.
The participants then agreed to decide by a majority decision on two alternative courses of action:-
1. Whether to intern U Thant’s remains at the Cantonment Garden after a temporary lying-in-state at the Peace Mausoleum,
2. Whether to go ahead with the internment at the peace Mausoleum which was nearing completion.
From the meeting, it transpired that; out of eleven participants, seven of them, including U Thant’s relatives, two monks’ representatives and three student’s representatives had agreed to the first point. Therefore the majority decision prevailed, and the Government announced that U Thant’s remains would be interned at the Cantonment Garden.
The four dissenting students felt that the wish of the majority of students and people were for the second proposal and, jading from later events, they apparently felt the pulse of the people and students correctly.
At 12 noon on December 8, 1974 tens of thousands of people converged on the university campus and thousands more lined the route leading to the Cantonment Garden. However there were other developments taking place on the campus.
As agreed, U Thant’s casket was taken from the Convocation Hall to the Peace Mausoleum where U Thant’s relatives and the general public paid their last tribute. After this an announcement was made over a loudspeaker that the casket would be escorted to the Cantonment Garden for burial. Immediately this was announced, a loud roar comes from the student body enjoining: “Please do not remove U Thant’s remains from the campus. Then from the public side, came an equally response concurring with the wishes of the students.
As a result, U Thant’s remains were interned at the Peace Mausoleum and a large UN flag was draped over it. At this a deafening cheer erupted from everyone present and the cry: “Victory, Victory “echoed across the campus.
That night, the state-owned Burma Broadcasting Service denounced the students for reneging on their agreement and declared that the students had gone against the wishes of U Thant’s relatives.
Further, it charged that the students had illegally used the government’s construction materials and that the People’s Construction Corporation had lodged a complaint with the police and asked the government to take action against the students. Furthermore, the radio said, the university authorities had also lodged a complaint against the unauthorized use of the University site to build the mausoleum. Thus, the legal groundwork was laid for government action in the language of an authoritarian regime; this means nothing less than the use of battle-hardened soldiers, machine guns, armoured cars and bayonets.
After the radio announcement, the students tightened their vigilance Student suicide squads keep vigil near the mausoleum. They were joined by Buddhist monks, male and female university students and member of the public who where ready to sacrifice their lives and waited for the Doomsday. But it never came…..at least for the next two days. Thus, the weariness and exhaustion during the past four hectic days made them relax their vigilance and produced an illusion that things were going will in their favour. But unknown to them, Ne Win’s forces were surreptitiously and systematically at work for a bloody reprisal.
There was a two-day lull and during this time state-owned news papers and the radio kept up a constant barrage of denunciations against the students. More ominously, the military and its intelligence arms, the Military Intelligence Service, quietly and systematically cordoned off the area around the campus but out of sight of the students. No one was allowed to enter4 the area and everyone trying to leave the area was intercepted and questioned.
Doomsday arrived at 2 a.m. on December 11, 1974. A huge road building machine ( some witnesses described it as an excavator) smashed the university’s massive iron gate and battle-ready troops and police stormed onto the campus with bayonets bared and lobbing canisters of tear gas. With the monster machine serving as a juggernaut, a detachment of troops made their way to the mausoleum while the rest the army personnel used force to round up each and every found on the campus.
The scene at the mausoleum was even more violent and tragic. The soldiers bayoneted everyone who stood in the way trying to prevent the giant machine from smashing the mausoleum to exhume U Thant’s remains. Some brave hearts, including girl students, clung to the tomb as the machine’s jaw close in on the tomb, only to die a horrible death. Blood flowed freely around the tomb of this gentle, soft-spoken man who had abhorred violence and who had devoted so much of his life to the prevention and cessation of violence.
Fleets of army trucks were brought in and the dead and wounded students, monks and laymen alike were flung callously onto the trucks and carted away. Those not injured, were herded onto the coverless trucks and made to squat on their stood at each corner of the truck, their machine guns pointing at the hapless prisoners in a scene reminiscent of war movies. The scene lasted until eight o’clock in the morning when the last of the detainees were taken away to the Insein Jail, six miles from the scene of carnage.
The same day, as word spread around Rangoon of the massacre and the desecration of the mausoleum, emotions ran wild among the populace spawning violence and destruction in its wake. The people, who had lived in an atmosphere of frustration and subdued anger, gave vent to their feelings and violence spread across the length and breadth of Rangoon. Their first targets were, naturally, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) unit offices, which were the symbols of the much-hated regime. Next to this came other state-owned buildings, such as cinemas, police stations, a confectionery, and other state-owned buildings. All were smashed up or put to the torch.
As expected, retaliation came swift and sure, and with predictable savagery. The sound of G-3 machine gun fire echoed across the city as thousands of soldiers, mostly from minority indigenous races were unleashed on the defenseless public.
Rangoon was transformed into a war zone as tanks and armoured personnel carries rumbled through the streets and scores of people were mowed down by the machine guns. The dead were carted off in army trucks and thousands of people were rounded up. Martial law was declared and dusk-to-dawn curfew clamped on the city. Summary trials were held and many were sentenced from 3 to 5 years on charges of destruction of public property.
But it did not end right there. The government must have its revenge. The much-dreaded and hated Military Intelligence Service (MIS) swooped on the homes of suspected students and people. Even young high school students were not spared. Many fled their homes and families to go into hiding. Some had joined the anti-government forces in the jungles and some had sought refuge in the neighbouring countries even at the risk of being arrested as illegal immigrants and thrown back into the lion’s jaws.
For these youths, all the years they had devoted to their studies, and all the money their parents had spent on their education had come to nought. The future seems bleak and uncertain for these young men and women, what of those who are languishing in jails? How long could their comrades stand by with folded arms and remain silent, especially when the people look forward to them as the last resort to help save the country from rack and ruin? That is why there will always be recurring protests, and bloodsheds as long as there are misery, poverty, injustice and oppression. This, indeed, is what is happening at the moment. As recently as June 5, 1975, thousands of students, workers and monks took to the streets again, demanding that their comrades and other people be released from incarceration and that the government do something to alleviate the deteriorating living conditions of the people.
Knowing very well that violent means would again be employed to suppress them, they sought safety in the hallowed sanctuary of Burma’s harm’s way. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and soldiers were again brought out and the protest was brought go a swift and bloody end. More arrests followed.
Before concluding this article, I should like to make one point clear to the readers in order to dispel any misunderstanding regarding the motives behind the U Thant incident.
The first point is that it was not due to any political machinations. It was wholly motivated by a sense of patriotism that honour should be accorded to those to whom honour is due. If a government under a parliamentary democracy had treated U Thant’ remains likewise, the students had taken such a serious turn was entirely due to the regime’s attitude to defy the popular will of the people.
Another factor, is that the mismanagement of the country for more than a decade, has reduced the country’s economy to shambles and millions of people are suffering from countless hardships and miseries which they were never accustomed to. There is a perennial shortage of even basic necessities of life, like rice, meat, sugar, clothing, etc.
Whatever is available is being sold by black-marketeers at exorbitant prices. Unemployment is rife and those who are fortunate enough to get a job earn a measly 12 baths a day. Old and weed-blackened buildings are a common sight and rubbish littered the street. Only a trickle of tourists visits Burma.
The third factor is the suspension of the democratic freedom of speech, assembly, criticism, etc. some would call it a suspension of human rights. No criticism, etc. Some would call it a suspension of human rights. No criticism against the regime’s ideology, economic policy or other important matters is tolerated. All media are under state ownership and even these are subject to censorship. All forms of dissent, violent or peaceful, are mercilessly crushed by the power of the gun.
Given these conditions, one may ask how long can the regime suppress the recurring popular discontent, and how many citizens must die and thousands more languish in jails before Rangoon really becomes the City of the “end of strife “, which is what Rangoon (or Yangon) means in Burmese.
Indeed, one may well wonder, when will Burma with all its rice, teak, gold, diamonds and other precious stones and minerals, and more importantly, oil: the black gold which has recently been found in abundant quantities on and off Burma’s coast; the magnificent sceneries and historical sites; when will these ever be rationally utilized and exploited to bring back the lost prosperity to the country and smiles on the faces of the happy, and-go-lucky people of Burma?
Henry Soe Win : Pro-democracy activist since 1974 U Thant Uprising; Took up refuge in Australia. Founder, Democracy for Burma (D4B Listserv). Studied at Rangoon Institute of Technology 1965-1974.
- Asian Tribune -