U Thant funeral crisis

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U Thant Funeral Crisis
Date 1 December 1974 (1974-12-01) – 11 December 1974 (1974-12-11)
Location Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)
Causes Government's refusal to hold a state funeral for U Thant
Goals State funeral at the old site of Rangoon University Student Union
Methods Civil resistance, demonstrations, nonviolent resistance
Status violently suppressed
Death(s) Unknown
Injuries Unknown
Arrested Unknown

U Thant's Funeral Crisis or U Thant Crisis (Burmese: ဦးသန့် အရေးအခင်း) was a series of protests and riots that took place in Burma (Myanmar) in December 1974. The spontaneous protests were in response to the military government's refusal to give U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, a state funeral. The government declared martial law and violently crushed the protests.


U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971
Ne Win, leader of 1962 Burmese coup d'état

U Thant, a close friend and confidant of U Nu, became the third Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1961. In 1962, Gen. Ne Win seized power from U Nu's democratically elected government. Because of his international stature, U Thant was the only senior member of U Nu's government not to be sacked.

U Thant and Ne Win "probably never cared much for each other" but the complete break came in 1969 when U Nu, now in exile, called for the overthrow of Ne Win's government in front of the UN press corps inside the UN Building in New York.[1] According to Thant Myint-U, a grandson of U Thant, the press conference was arranged entirely by U Nu and without permission from U Thant who was on a mission in Africa at the time. It was the first time that a call for the overthrow of a UN member state government had been made inside the UN.

U Thant was aghast; he told U Nu that the action was totally inappropriate. But the damage had been done. Gen. Ne Win was furious, and sure that U Thant had been conniving with U Nu. The general told his men to consider U Thant an "enemy of the state." U Thant flew to Yangon to explain but Ne Win refused to see him. The rancor was such that U Thant, still officially the country's top diplomat, had difficulty renewing his passport.[1]

U Thant remained in New York after his retirement from the UN in 1971 until his death on 25 November 1974 from lung cancer. Ne Win had not forgiven him. When U Thant's body was brought back to Yangon, the general refused to accord the late diplomat any special honours, let alone a state funeral.[1] The body arrived at Yangon on 1 December 1974,[2] and brought to the Kyaikkasan Grounds for public viewing before a planned burial at the Kyandaw Cemetery on 5 December.[3]

Protests and coffin snatch[edit]

On the day of the burial, several university students approached bus operators to rent buses. However, the bus operators refused, saying the government had forbidden them to rent any buses in connection with the funeral.

Undeterred, the students decided to rally at Rangoon University for a long trek to the Kyaikkasan Grounds. From the university, students marched to the Kyaikkasan Grounds and paid their last respects to U Thant’s body. The students then stood at attention while Buddhist monks chanted prayers and performed other funeral rites. The coffin was seized by a group of students to the Convocation Hall of Rangoon University. There, the body was placed on a dais where monks chanted prayers and students kept a vigil over the body. Outside the Convocation Hall, the students delivered speeches against the government.

On 6 December, the students sent a letter to the government demanding a state funeral, and said that if the authorities refused, they would hold their own funeral, one befitting a Burmese hero. They chose the site of the old Student Union, which Ne Win had blown up in 1962, for the location of the planned mausoleum.[4]

On 7 December, the government offered a compromise. U Thant would be buried at a mausoleum to be built near the Shwedagon Pagoda but there would be no state funeral. At any rate, U Thant's family preferred a public funeral rather than a state funeral organised by a military regime. At a meeting among U Thant's family, student representatives and Buddhist monks, the majority agreed to accept the government's offer.[4]

On 8 December, the coffin was placed temporarily at the site of the Student Union, as a gesture toward the students who had wished him interred there. Thousands of people converged on the university campus and thousands more lined the route leading to the Shwedagon Pagoda to pay their final respects. At the last moment, the more radical student faction seized the coffin yet again with the intent of burying U Thant at the Student Union site.[4] As a result, U Thant’s body remained there with a large UN flag draped over it.

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 family. Furthermore, it charged that the students had illegally used the government’s construction materials and occupied the university site (at which to build their mausoleum) without authorisation. There was a two-day lull during which state-owned newspapers and radio kept up a constant barrage of denunciations against the students.[3]


At two in the morning of 11 December 15 platoons of riot police backed by over a thousand soldiers stormed the campus.[4] They fired on unarmed students guarding the makeshift mausoleum, killing several of them, and took away the coffin. Mass riots broke out around Yangon. An angry crowd of several thousand destroyed a police station, and several cinemas. Troops opened fire, and more people were killed. The government declared martial law and violently crushed the riots and demonstrations.[3][5][6]

Final burial[edit]

Tomb of U Thant near the Shwedagon Pagoda

The government buried U Thant in Kandawmin Garden Mausolea near the Shwedagon Pagoda.


  1. ^ a b c Myint-U, Thant (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps—Histories of Burma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 311. ISBN 978-0-374-16342-6. 
  2. ^ "38th Commemoration of former UNSG U Thant’s Movement". Eleven Myanmar. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c "Peace Eludes U Thant". Asian Tribune. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d Myint-U, Thant (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps—Histories of Burma. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 313–314. ISBN 978-0-374-16342-6. 
  5. ^ 1974 U Thant uprising – a first hand account
  6. ^ "The U.S. And The 2012 Burmese Election". Usforeignpolicy.about.com. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 

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