Six days after U Thant, the first and only Burmese secretary-general of the United Nations, died of cancer in a New York hospital in the last week of November 1974, a small propeller plane carrying his remains landed at Rangoon’s Mingaladon Airport. His body was brought back to Burma for burial in accordance with his wishes. But the then ruling Gen. Ne Win, who suspected the former secretary-general of colluding with forces pressing for a return to democracy in Burma, refused to give U Thant the state funeral that the Burmese people felt he deserved. U Thant, who was also the first Asian secretary general, served in the prestigious UN post from 1961 to 1971. During his tenure, he helped defuse the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, and helped end a civil war in Congo. Ne Win, orchestrator of a military coup in 1962 that overthrew a democratically elected Burmese government, refused to honor the late secretary-general, reportedly saying: “Even my wife was buried in Kyandaw cemetery [the graveyard is now converted into a glitzy shopping mall near Hanthawaddy junction in Rangoon] like other people. Let that codger lie there, too.” Ne Win’s decision was met with popular outcry. A group of university students snatched U Thant’s coffin from the Kyaik Ka San racetrack, where he was lying in state, on Dec. 5. [irrawaddy_gallery] Determined to give the statesman “a proper burial,” the students entombed him in a hastily built mausoleum on the grounds where the Student Union building was once stood on the Rangoon University campus. But in the small hours of Dec. 11, Burmese security forces stepped in brutally to seize back the remains and buried them near the southern stairway of the Shwedagon Pagoda, where his mausoleum stands to this day. During the crackdown, several hundred students were arrested, an uprising against Burma’s military rulers that went down in modern Burmese history as “The U Thant Affair.” Htein Win, a Burmese freelance photographer, tried to capture those moments on his camera, and on the 40th anniversary of the event this week, The Irrawaddy publishes some of those pictures that have never been printed before.
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