The Last Journey for the Man of Peace: A Daughter’s Remembrance
by Aye Aye Thant
November 25, 2019 is the 45th anniversary of my father U Thant’s passing. I would like to take this opportunity to share my personal recollections of a fateful time: the events surrounding my father’s funeral, when student activists in Rangoon seized my father’s body to protest the
military government’s refusal to give him a state funeral.
My father, U Thant, passed away at the age of 65 on Monday, November 25, 1974 at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where he had been admitted a week earlier with pneumonia, a complication from cancer of the mouth. Father had been ill with cancer for one year; he’d had his first surgery on November 13, 1973.
Upon receiving word of my father’s death, the delegates to the United Nations General Assembly stood for a minute of silence and then began delivering a eulogy. The UN flag was flown at half-mast. My father’s body was laid in state in front of the Meditation Room at the United Nations. This was unprecedented and we considered it a great honor. The President of the United States, Gerald Ford, issued a statement saying that for “U Thant, loyalty was not to any one power or ethnicity, but to humanity.” He also called him “a man of peace.”
The family wrote a letter to General Ne Win, the military dictator and President of Burma, telling him of my father’s death and asking for permission to bring his body back to be buried there. We did not receive any formal response, but informally, there were a number of indications that the government would cooperate with our plan. For example, the Permanent Representative of Burma to the United Nations, U Lwin, joined my husband and me in the reception line at the United Nations where my father laid in state. This indicated to us that he was there to represent the government with the approval of General Ne Win.
On November 29, 1975 we boarded a Pan Am flight bound for Bangkok. Traveling with me were my husband, my 8-year old son, and the Chief of Protocol at the UN, Mr. Sinan Korle, as a representative of the Secretary-General. At every stop along the way, ambassadors from Burma received us at each of the airports where Burma had embassies. That also indicated to us that the Ne Win government was welcoming my father back home. In Bangkok, we chartered a Burmese plane. This was also a sign of approval from the government, since all commercial planes were owned by the government.
We landed in Rangoon on Sunday, December 1, and were greeted at the airport by a tremendous crowd. But, no one from the government had come to meet us at the airport.
There was also no appropriate vehicle there to carry Father’s casket. Instead, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) of Myanmar provided us a SUV to carry the casket. I was told then that arrangements had been made a few days earlier for my father’s body to be laid in state at the Kyaikkasan grounds, the former colonial-era race track.
Along with my son and the UN Chief of Protocol, I followed the casket with the UNDP representative in his car. My husband rode with one of my uncles. The streets were lined with people, some weeping, some holding their hands together in the Buddhist gesture of “kadaw,” and some saluting. I was overwhelmed with emotion: pride at seeing my father received with such love, and sadness that he could not be there himself to receive that genuine devotion and respect. I murmured something like, “Oh, he is loved.” No one in the car responded.