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In this Burmese name, U is an honorific.
U Thant
Thant pictured in 1968.
Secretary-General of the United Nations

In office
November 30, 1961 – December 31, 1971
Preceded by Dag Hammarskjöld
Succeeded by Kurt Waldheim
Personal details
Born (1909-01-22)January 22, 1909
Pantanaw, British Burma, British India
Died November 25, 1974(1974-11-25) (aged 65)
New York City, United States
Resting place Tomb south of Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)
Nationality Burmese
Spouse(s) Daw Thein Tin
  • Po Hnit (father)
  • Nan Thaung (mother)
  • Khant (brother)
  • Thaung (brother)
  • Tin Maung (brother)
  • Maung Bo
  • Tin Maung Thant
  • Aye Aye Thant
  • Po Hnit
  • Nan Thaung
Religion Theravada Buddhism

U Thant (/ˌ ˈθɑːnt/;[1] Burmese: ဦးသန့်; MLCTS: u:san.; Burmese pronunciation: [ʔú θa̰ɴ]; January 22, 1909 – November 25, 1974) was a Burmese diplomat and served as the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, from 1961 to 1971. He was chosen for the post when his predecessor, Dag Hammarskjöld, died in September 1961. One of his most noteworthy accomplishments during his tenure as Secretary General was his valuable assistance in facilitating the negotiations between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby narrowly averting the possibility of a major global catastrophe.

"U" is an honorific in Burmese, roughly equal to "Mr". "Thant" was his only name, per Burmese convention. In Burmese, he was known as Pantanaw U Thant, given that his home town was Pantanaw.

Early days[]

U Thant as a Rangoon University student in 1927.

Thant was born in Pantanaw, Lower Burma, and was educated at the National High School in Pantanaw and at Rangoon University, where he studied history. He was the eldest of four sons and was born into a family of well-to-do landowners and rice merchants. His father, Po Hnit, had helped establish The Sun (Thuriya) newspaper in Rangoon and had been educated in Calcutta, British India.[2][3] He was also a founding member of the Burma Research Society. U Thant's father, according to Thant Myint-U (U Thant's grandson), had both Buddhist and Muslim forebears.[3] His father died when Thant was fourteen,[4] and a series of inheritance disputes forced Thant's mother, Nan Thaung, and her four children into difficult financial times.[5] His brothers U Khant, U Thaung, and Tin Maung, were also politicians and scholars.[2]

After university, Thant returned to Pantanaw to teach at the National School and became its headmaster by the age of twenty-five. During this time he became close friends with future prime minister U Nu, who was from neighbouring Wakema and was the local superintendent of schools. Thant regularly contributed to several newspapers and magazines under the pen name "Thilawa" and translated a number of books, including one on the League of Nations.[6] U Thant was a devout Buddhist.[7]

Civil servant[]

U Thant and his family in 1957, including son Tin Maung Thant and daughter Aye Aye Thant.

U Thant and his mother Nan Thaung.

When U Nu became the prime minister of the newly independent Burma, he asked Thant to join him in Rangoon and appointed him 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 U Nu, arranging his foreign travel, and meeting foreign visitors. During this entire period, he was U Nu's closest confidant and advisor.

He also took part in a number of international conferences and was the secretary of the first Asian–African summit in 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia, which gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement. From 1957 to 1961, he was Burma's permanent representative to the United Nations and became actively involved in negotiations over Algerian independence. In 1961, the Burmese government awarded him the title Maha Thray Sithu as a commander in the order of Pyidaungsu Sithu.[8]

UN Secretary-General[]

U Thant shakes hands with John F. Kennedy during his visit to the UN Headquarters.

Thant began serving as acting Secretary-General from November 3, 1961, when he was unanimously appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council in Resolution 168, to fill the unexpired term of Dag Hammarskjöld. He was then unanimously appointed secretary-general by the General Assembly on November 30, 1962, for a term of office ending on November 3, 1966. During this first term he was widely credited for his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and for ending the civil war in the Congo. He also said that he wanted to ease tensions between major powers while serving at the UN.[9]

In April 1964, Thant accepted the Holy See’s designation of itself as a permanent observer. There appeared to be no involvement of the General Assembly or the UN Security Council in the decision.[10] He received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1965.[11]

Intercommunal clashes broke out in Cyprus on Christmas Eve 1963 and were followed by the withdrawal of the Turkish Cypriots into their enclaves, leaving the central government wholly under Greek Cypriot control. A "peace-making force" established under British command was unable to put an end to the fighting, and a conference on Cyprus held in London in January 1964 ended in disagreement. In the face of the danger of broader hostilities in the area, the Security Council on 4 March 1964 decided unanimously to authorize U Thant to establish a UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), with a limited three-month mandate to prevent the recurrence of fighting, to help maintain law and order, and to aid in the return to normal conditions. The force was to be financed on the basis of voluntary contributions. The Council also asked the secretary-general to appoint a mediator to seek a peaceful settlement of the Cyprus problem. The report of U Thant's mediator, Galo Plaza Lasso, was transmitted to the Security Council in March 1965 but was rejected by Turkey. Plaza resigned in December 1965, and the function of mediator lapsed.

Another crisis occurred in November 1967, but threatened military intervention by Turkey was averted, largely as a result of US opposition. Negotiations conducted by Cyrus Vance for the US and José Rolz-Bennett on behalf of the secretary-general led to a settlement. Intercommunal talks were begun in June 1968, through the good offices of the secretary-general, as part of the settlement. The talks bogged down, but U Thant proposed a formula for their reactivation under the auspices of his special representative, B.F. Osorio-Tafall, and they were resumed in 1972, after Thant had left office.[12]

U Thant was re-appointed secretary-general of the United Nations by the General Assembly on December 2, 1966, on the unanimous recommendation of the Security Council. His term of office continued until December 31, 1971, when he retired. During his time in office, he oversaw the entry into the UN of dozens of new Asian and African states and was a firm opponent of apartheid in South Africa. He also established many of the UN's development and environmental agencies, funds and programmes, including the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN University, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the UN Environmental Programme.

Unlike his two predecessors,[citation needed] Thant retired after ten years on speaking terms with all the big 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, all the big powers, in a unanimous vote of the Security Council, affirmed the importance of the secretary-generalship and his good offices, a clear tribute to Thant's work.

The Six Day War between Arab countries and Israel, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 leading to the birth of Bangladesh all took place during his tenure as secretary-general.

He was widely criticized in the US and Israel for agreeing to pull UN troops out of the Sinai in 1967 in response to a request from Egyptian president Nasser.[13] U Thant tried to persuade Nasser not to go to war with Israel by flying to Cairo in a last-minute peace effort.

His once good relationship with the US government deteriorated rapidly when he publicly criticized American conduct of the Vietnam War.[14] His secret attempts at direct peace talks between Washington and Hanoi were eventually rejected by the Johnson Administration.

Thant followed UFO reports with some interest; in 1967, he arranged for American atmospheric physicist James E. McDonald to speak before the UN's Outer Space Affairs Group regarding UFOs.[15]

On January 23, 1971, U Thant categorically announced that he would "under no circumstances" 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 U Thant as secretary-general on December 21, 1971—Waldheim's 53rd birthday—and just ten days before U Thant's second term was to end.

In his farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary-General U Thant stated that he felt a "great sense of relief bordering on liberation" on relinquishing the "burdens of office".[16] In an editorial published around December 27, 1971, praising U 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 titled "The Liberation of U Thant".

While serving as secretary-general, U Thant lived in Riverdale, Bronx, on a 4.75-acre (1.92 ha) estate near 232nd Street, between Palisade and Douglas Avenues.[17]

Personal life[]

U Thant and his family, including brothers Khant, Thaung and Tin Maung, his mother Nan Thaung, and his daughter Aye Aye Thant and her husband, Tyn Myint-U, in 1964.

U Thant had three brothers: Pantanaw U Khant, U Thaung, and U Tin Maung.[18] He was married to Daw Thein Tin. U Thant had two sons, but lost both; Maung Bo died in infancy, and Tin Maung Thant fell from a bus during a visit to Yangon. Tin Maung Thant's funeral procession, which was attended by dignitaries, was grander than that of the state funeral of Commodore Than Pe, a member of the 17-man Revolutionary Council and minister of health and education. U Thant was survived by a daughter, an adopted son, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren (three girls and two boys). His only grandson, Thant Myint-U, is a historian and a former senior official in the UN's Department of Political Affairs and the author of The River of Lost Footsteps, in part a biography of U Thant.


U Thant's tomb, Shwedagon Pagoda Road, Rangoon.

U Thant died of lung cancer in New York on November 25, 1974. By that time, Burma was ruled by a military junta which refused him any honors. The then Burmese president Ne Win was envious of U Thant's international stature and the respect that was accorded him by the Burmese populace. Ne Win also resented U Thant's close links with the democratic government of U Nu which Ne Win had overthrown in a coup d'état on March 2, 1962. Ne Win ordered that U Thant be buried without any official involvement or ceremony.

From the United Nations headquarters in New York where he was laid in state, U Thant's body was flown back to Rangoon, but no guard of honour or high-ranking officials were on hand at the airport when the coffin arrived except for U Aung Tun, deputy minister of education, who was subsequently dismissed from office.[19]

On the day of U Thant's funeral on December 5, 1974, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Rangoon to pay their last respects. Thant's coffin was displayed at Rangoon's Kyaikasan race course for a few hours before the scheduled burial.

The coffin of U 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 U Thant on the former grounds of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), which Ne Win had dynamited and destroyed on July 8, 1962.[20]

During the period of December 5–11, 1974, the student demonstrators also built a temporary mausoleum for U 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 U Thant's coffin, and reburied it at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda, where it has continued to lie.[21]

Upon hearing of the storming of the Rangoon University campus and the forcible removal of U 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—the student-led protests over the shabby treatment of U Thant by the Ne Win government—was crushed by the Burmese government.[21]

In 1978, U Thant's memoirs, View from the UN, were posthumously published, initially by the American publishing house Doubleday.

In April 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid his respects at U Thant's mausoleum during a visit to Yangon.


  • The U Thant Peace Award acknowledges and honours individuals or organizations for distinguished accomplishments toward the attainment of world peace.
  • A tiny island in the East River opposite the headquarters of the United Nations, U Thant Island, is named after him.[22]
  • Jalan U-Thant (English: U-Thant Road) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is also named in his honour.[23]
  • In October 2013 the building of an U Thant library near his house in Pantanaw is underway.[24]


  1. vintage news video
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert H. Taylor, ed (2008). Dr. Maung Maung: Gentleman, Scholar, Patriot. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. pp. 211–212. ISBN 978-981-230-409-4. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Thant Myint-U (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-16342-1. 
  4. International affairs, Issues 1–3. (2006). Znanye Pub. House. p. 145.
  5. Franda, Marcus F. (2006). The United Nations in the 21st century: management and reform processes in a troubled organization. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-7425-5334-7.
  6. Naing, Saw Yan (January 22, 2009). Remembering U Thant and His Achievements. The Irrawaddy.
  7. U Thant
  8. H.W. Wilson Company (1962). Current biography, Volume 23. H. W. Wilson Co.
  9. "1962 In Review. United Press International.
  10. Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, Interventions
  11. "List of the recipients of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award". ICCR website. 
  13. Rikhye, Indar Jit (1980). The Sinai blunder: withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force leading to the Six-Day War of June 1967. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7146-3136-3.
  14. Dennen, Leon (August 12, 1968). U Thant Speaks No Evil on Czech Crisis. Daily News.
  15. Letter to U Thant / James E. McDonald. – Tucson, Ariz. : J.E. McDonald, 1967. – 2 s;Druffel, Ann; Firestorm: Dr. James E. McDonald's Fight for UFO Science; 2003, Wild Flower Press; ISBN 0-926524-58-5
  16. Whitman, Alden (November 26, 1974). "U Thant Is Dead of Cancer at 65; UT Thant Is Dead of Cancer; United Nations Mourns" The New York Times.
  17. Dunlap, David W. "Bronx Residents Fighting Plans Of a Developer", The New York Times, November 16, 1987. Accessed 2008-05-04. "A battle has broken out in the Bronx over the future of the peaceful acreage where U Thant lived when he headed the United Nations. A group of neighbors from Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil has demanded that the city acquire as a public park the 4.75-acre (19,200 m2) parcel known as the Douglas-U Thant estate, north of 232d Street, between Palisade and Douglas Avenues."
  18. Bingham, June (1966). U Thant: The Search For Peace. Victor Gollancz. p. 43. 
  19. Asian almanac, Volume 13. (1975). s.n. p. 6809.
  20. Smith, Martin (December 6, 2002). "General Ne Win". The Guardian. London. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 Soe-win, Henry (June 17, 2008). Peace Eludes U Thant. Asian Tribune.
  22. Schneider, Daniel B. (October 6, 1996). "F.Y.I.". The New York Times. 
  23. List of roads in Kuala Lumpur

Further reading[]

  • A. Walter Dorn (2007). "U Thant: Buddhism in Action," in Kille, Kent (ed.), The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 978-1-58901-180-9.  Available online.
  • A. Walter Dorn and Robert Pauk (2009). "Unsung Mediator: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis," Diplomatic History, Vol. 33, Iss. 2 (April 2009), pp.261-292.  Available online.
  • Bernard J. Firestone (2001). The United Nations under U Thant, 1961–1971. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-3700-5. 
  • Ramses Nassif (1988). U Thant in New York, 1961–1971: A Portrait of the Third UN Secretary-General. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-02117-8. 
  • U Thant (1978). View from the UN. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-11541-5. 

External links[]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Sweden Dag Hammarskjöld
United Nations Secretary-General
Succeeded by
Austria Kurt Waldheim

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