RANGOON — Nestled in a leafy neighborhood in Burma’s former capital, the house in which one of the country’s most famous sons once lived is not easy to spot.
But take a short walk down a lane off the main road, into the Windermere compound that once housed Burma’s ruling elites, and you will see a blue signpost with white lettering that reads “The U Thant House.”
A shady garden path leads to a newly renovated yellow-brick structure where U Thant, the first Asian secretary-general to the United Nations once resided.
U Thant served as UN secretary-general 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. He also helped end a civil war in Congo.
He and his family lived in the two-story colonial-style house from 1951-57 when he was Secretary to then Burmese Prime Minster U Nu, before leaving the country to serve as Burma’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York in 1957.
For many years, the house was in a sorry state. Termites formed a colony under the staircase. The roof was blown off by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and foliage rampaged in the compound until renovation was by his family started in 2012.
“It was in a state of dilapidation when we found it in 2011,” said Aye Aye Thant, the late diplomat’s daughter, who is renovating the house to turn it into a museum.
Initiated by Thant Myint-U, a historian and the chairman of Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT), as well as the grandson of U Thant, the project will convert the house into a museum. The YHT is helping provide expert advice and technical support to the museum.
The house will also be a center for public events on issues related to the former secretary-general and his work, a plan that was signed off by Burmese President Thein Sein in early 2012.
But the late diplomat’s legacy has not always enjoyed official approval.
Envious and suspicious of U Thant’s global and local popularity, Burma’s former dictator General Ne Win, who ousted U Nu in a coup in 1962, sought to erase the diplomat from history.
When U Thant died of cancer in 1974, he was denied a state funeral. In his book “A Journalist, a General and an Army in Burma,” the veteran journalist Kyaymone U Thaung wrote that Ne Win personally refused to honor the late secretary-general, 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 and entombed it in the grounds of Rangoon University. The Burmese military stepped in brutally to grab back the remains and buried them near the southern stairway of the Shwedagon pagoda, where his mausoleum stands today.
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.”
In the years that followed, U Thant was absent from the reams of Burmese historical figures whose stories were taught in Burma’s schools.
But nearly four decades later, with the soft opening of the museum in April this year, visitors to the U Thant House will have a rare glimpse of one of the most prominent Burmese.
“I hope that this is both about celebrating his life and his work, but
also about reclaiming our past so that we can think a different way about future,” Thant Myint-U said during the soft opening, after preliminary renovations had been completed.
Although the family planned to open the museum officially on Jan. 22, 2014, to commemorate the 105th birthday of the late UN chief, that date is impossible now, said Aye Aye Thant.
“The ceiling and wiring works are not finished yet so we have to postpone the official opening ceremony,” she explained
Now open to the public, the U Thant House is mostly decorated with photos of the life and work of the former secretary-general, while his personal belongings are rarely seen. His daughter said letters to and from world leaders, books and other mementoes are scheduled for permanent exhibition as “the family is collecting some of his stuff he used in the US and UN.”
Upon entry to the house, visitors are greeted by an enlarged Newsweek magazine cover of U Thant in 1966, when he was the head of the United Nations. In the living room downstairs, a large oil portrait of the secretary-general by the Burmese artist Nay Myo Say and a black-and-white portrait photo of the 18-year-old U Thant share the walls with other pictures, including the one taken with the late American president John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis.
The house, which sits on a 1.5-acre plot of land, was leased to the newly formed U Thant House Trust. When the renovation was publicized, dozens of people came forward to donate money, including US sanctioned tycoon Tay Za.
Thant Myint-U, who is also the member of the government advisory body the National Economic and Social Advisory Council (NESAC) that assess whether international loans, grants and aid are being used effectively, told The Irrawaddy that contributions (mainly from Burmese banks, businesses, and individuals) totaling about $80,000 had come in for repairs of the house.
“Htoo Foundation [run by Tay Za] was one of 20-30 businesses/organizations that contributed to the initial renovation of the house one year ago,” Thant Myint-U said via an email. “The U Thant House Trust should soon publish a list of all contributors.”
Aye Aye Thant said she wants the museum to be more than a dedication to her father.
Instead, she would like young visitors to assess what kind of person U Thant was and what he achieved, and to examine how he did it after their tours to the museum.
“I just want it to inspire young people to become someone like him some day,” she said.
The U Thant House is located at 31 Pan Wah Lane, Kamayut Township, Rangoon.