Yangon – On this day 45 years ago, university students buried the former United Nations secretary-general, U Thant, on the campus of Yangon University, three days after they snatched the body from a funeral procession as military dictator General Ne Win refused to honor him with a state funeral.
U Thant, who served as the third UN secretary-general, died on Nov. 25, 1974. His body was brought back to Myanmar to lie in state at the former Kyaikkasan Racecourse. Amid calls for a state funeral, the government said the body would be buried at Kyandaw Cemetery.
Students and members of the public snatched the body from the official funeral procession on Dec. 5 and took it to the university where the body lay in the Convocation Hall.
Thousands came to pay their respects at the university and the demands for a state funeral and burial at a mausoleum led to anti-government protests.
Gen. Ne Win’s regime then approved the building of a mausoleum in Kandawmin Park near the southern gate of Shwedagon Pagoda.
However, on Dec. 8, students entombed his body among the ruins of the students’ union, which was blown up by the military 12 years earlier.
At around 2 a.m. on Dec. 11, hundreds of soldiers stormed the university campus. Dispersing the students with tear gas and batons, they broke open the mausoleum and retrieved the coffin. Within hours, they buried the coffin near Shwedagon Pagoda where his mausoleum stands today.
The tombs of Su Paya Latt, who was queen to Myanmar’s last monarch King Thibaw, and Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing, a former poet laureate considered a father of the nationalist movement, were already in the park.
The crackdown on the students triggered mass riots across Yangon. Martial law was declared and arms were used to control the protesters.
The government said several protesters died and thousands were arrested. Observers said there were many more casualties.
During the crisis, a deputy education minister who paid respect to U Thant’s body was sacked and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew canceled a planned visit to Myanmar to meet Gen. Ne Win.