U Thant (1909-1974) was an educator, writer, civil servant and Myanmar’s top diplomat on the global stage, having served two terms as the Secretary-General of the United Nations at the height of the Cold War.
From Pantanaw to New York: When financial difficulties following his father’s untimely death prevented U Thant from pursuing his early dreams of becoming a journalist, he studied for an intermediate degree at Rangoon University to be able to teach for a living so that he could support his younger brothers’ education. He excelled at teaching and after winning first place in the national teacher certification exam was promoted to headmaster of the school in his home town of Pantanaw in the delta region of Burma.
Throughout his time as an educator, he wrote articles for newspapers and magazines, and translated books and poems into the Burmese language. In 1947, at the invitation of Burma’s independence leader General Aung San, he left for Rangoon and became Press Officer for the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom league. He was drawn into civil service when Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948 and the country’s first Prime Minister, U Nu, appointed him Director of Broadcasting and later Secretary to the Prime Minister. In 1957, U Thant became Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and moved to New York. When then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in 1961, U Thant was chosen to be Acting Secretary-General. A year later he was unanimously appointed by the General Assembly and went on to serve two consecutive terms.
Promoting Peace: As UN Secretary-General, U Thant ushered in visionary new initiatives to promote peace, development, and human rights around the world. Just a year into office, he successfully acted as intermediary in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Negotiating between President of the United States John F. Kennedy and leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, and travelling to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro, he was able to defuse a nuclear stand-off still considered the most dangerous in world history. Serving at the height of the Cold War and during a time of great global turbulence, his other mediation efforts included the Vietnam War, the Six Day War, the Congo, Bahrain, the Dominican Crisis, the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, and Yemen.
Expanding the United Nations: U Thant believed that the UN had a responsibility to end colonial rule. Under his tenure the UN went from being a largely European organization to one that embraced newly independent nations and grew in membership from 99 countries in 1960 to 132 in 1971. U Thant also believed the UN would be most valuable if it was an organization with truly universal membership, regardless of ideology, and he was instrumental in ensuring that communist China was invited to take a seat.
Economic Development & Safeguarding the Environment: During U Thant’s time economic development became an increasing focus of the UN and was recognized as a precondition for peace. Understanding not only the opportunities but also the risks of scientific advances, U Thant constantly promoted the peaceful use of technology and it was during his time the first nuclear test-ban treaty was signed.
U Thant was also an early advocate for environmental protection, the preservation of wildlife and biodiversity, and the safeguarding of earth’s finite resources. He made Earth Day an international day and was instrumental in the holding of the first global conference on the environment and initiating the establishment of the UN Environment Programme. The conference was a first-ever stock-taking of the human impact on the environment, and confirmed close links between development and environmental degradation. It was the start of a global environmental movement, increased awareness of environmental issues, and international environmental diplomacy and law-making.