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Myanmar's U Thant Steered

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The Jakarta Post
January 24, 2000


U Thant was the third Secretary- General of the United Nations. The main reason for writing this article was that the occasion or the anniversary calls for a celebration and recall of some of the events concerning U Thant's tenure as Secretary- General of the UN.

U Thant, the only Asian to have served the United Nations so far, was born in Pantanauw, Burma (now Myanmar) on Jan. 22, 1909. He died of cancer in New York on Nov. 25, 1974. If he were alive he would have been 91 years old this week.

Another reason for writing this article is that there has been recent comments which had -- in this writer's opinion -- unfairly criticized U Thant. In an effort to get a more objective view, a comparison with at least one of the former Secretaries-General is unavoidable.

Most Secretaries-General of the UN wrote memoirs (in English) after their retirement. Trygve Lie, the first UN Secretary-General wrote and published his book In the Cause of Peace: Seven Years with the United Nations in 1954 -- within a year after his resignation as the first Secretary-General of the United Nations.

U Thant's memoirs View from the UN was posthumously published in 1978. Kurt Waldheim's memoirs In the Eye of the Storm was published in 1985. As far as this writer knows Perez de Cuellar has not yet published his memoirs at least in the English language.

Boutros-Ghali, who was -- due to the United States veto became the only Secretary-General to be denied to serve a second term -- also published his memoirs in June 1999. Boutros-Ghali's memoir Unvanquished: A U.S.-UN Saga basically recounts how the United States single-handedly and single-mindedly prevented his re-election as Secretary-General for a second term.

Initially Boutros-Ghali stated that he only intended to serve one term. But in 1995, about a year before his first term ended, Boutros- Ghali indicated that he would be a candidate to serve a second term as Secretary-General of the UN.

Boutros-Ghali was denied that chance because of the U.S. veto. Contrast Boutros-Ghali's situation with that of U Thant who in October 1966 had decided to retire at the end of his first term in office.

I clearly remember reading in Newsweek magazine which stated that there was, at that time, no person which was acceptable to the big powers to take the place of U Thant as Secretary-General.

Newsweek in the October 1996 edition wrote: "Acutely aware of this fact and with genuine esteem for the Secretary-General himself delegate after delegate took the rostrum and pleaded the Secretary-General to reconsider".

- Thant eventually relented and served a second term. Boutros-Ghali might have the support of all but one member of the Security Council -- the United States -- in his bid for reelection for a second term but U Thant in the first place never sought a second term.

- Thant's actions can even more instructively be contrasted with that of his immediate successor. Unlike U Thant, Waldheim actively campaigned for a second and a third term. When Mao Ze-dong died in September 1976 Waldheim went out of his way to lavishly praised the late Chairman.

China's concurring vote in the Security Council was needed for Waldheim to serve a second term as UN Secretary-General. Newsweek, quoted a diplomat who described Waldheim's almost obsequious praise of Mao by saying that "China is a 5,000 year old civilization. They cannot be bought with such cheap tactics."

Be that as it may, Waldheim actively campaigned for and served a second year term. And U Thant's and Waldheim's actions in so far as serving a third term as UN Secretary-General is even more striking.

On Jan. 23, 1971 U Thant unequivocally announced that he would "under no circumstances whatsoever" be serving another term as Secretary- General. At a news conference in September 1971 U Thant was asked whether he was willing to serve a few more months as Secretary-General in case no successor was found. All the members of the UN Security Council was willing to support him -- and indeed urged and pleaded with him- to serve a third term. But this time U Thant refused to budge.

Finally on Dec. 21, 1971, ten days before U Thant's term was due to expire, Kurt Waldheim was -- as a compromise -- elected as fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In stark contrast, Kurt Waldheim in the words of one author "unashamedly" campaigned for an unprecedented third term. In the Security Council China vetoed his unprecedented bid for a third term for 16 times before Waldheim decided to withdraw.

- Thant had the support of all the big powers and would have easily got a third term if he had wished to do so. Instead U Thant repeatedly refused even a short extension of his second five-year term.

- Thant wrote in his memoirs that, when the Security Council had, till mid-December 1971, not find a "successor" he felt "terribly sick".

When Kurt Waldheim was finally elected as fourth Secretary-General, U Thant in a farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly, spoke of "a tremendous sense of relief bordering on liberation".

I have read (in accounts of U Thant's farewell address to the UN General Assembly written by others) that when U Thant finished speaking there was "thunderous applause" and a "standing ovation" from all those that were gathered in the General Assembly.

In his memoirs U Thant modestly did not mention about the standing ovation he received form the General Assembly after his farewell address. Both Kurt Waldheim and Boutros Boutros-Ghali deemed it fit to mention that they received standing ovations when they retired from the office of UN Secretary-General.

One should add that both Waldheim and Boutros-Ghali, unlike U Thant, were (virtually) "forced to retire" as Secretary-General.

Also, unlike U Thant, both Waldheim and Boutros-Ghali actively campaigned for a third and second term respectively.

Yet no written history or biography of the United Nations' Secretaries-General that I have read of, has cared to contrast the totally different attitudes and actions of Waldheim and U Thant in (not) seeking the office.

Campaigning and intense lobbying for the post of Secretary-General began with Waldheim's initial campaign for Secretary-General in 1971. It peaked in 1981 when Waldheim unsuccessfully campaigned for a third term and his rival Salim Ahmed Salim, later Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity, actively and also unsuccessfully campaigned for it.

As it was, Perez de Cuellar, the person who succeeded Waldheim, did not campaign at all for the post. Boutros-Ghali wrote in his memoirs that he too "as a political animal" campaigned for the post of UN Secretary-General both when he was first appointed in 1991 and in his unsuccessful bid for a second term in 1996.

It would be good if the good old days of Trygve Lie, Dag Hammerskjold and U Thant -- when the office of UN Secretary-General sought the person instead of the other way around -- could be revived in the culture of the United Nations.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.