PANTANAW, Irrawaddy Division — Now 81, Daw Gyi still has the receipt from U Thant acknowledging her family’s purchase of the former schoolmaster’s house in Pantanaw, a flood-prone township in the Irrawaddy Delta.
It was 1957, the year that U Thant went to New York to work as Burma’s representative at the United Nations. In neat Burmese script, the future UN secretary-general dashed off the amount received for the teak-timbered two-story house that was his birthplace: 1,750 kyats, less than US$2 in today’s money, or a quarter of the taxi fare from Rangoon International Airport to the city’s downtown.
By Pantanaw standards, the house is spacious and airy—and conveniently located just behind the town’s main street. It seemed like the perfect abode for anyone wanting to pass their days in this delta town, but Daw Gyi wasn’t to know that the house would cause her moments of trouble.
Four years after selling the homestead, U Thant was appointed UN secretary-general, the start of a decade-long tenure that coincided, give or take a year, with the first decade of the Gen Ne Win military dictatorship in Burma.
“Intelligence officers kept an eye on this house all the time,” Daw Gyi recalls. “It was so annoying and disappointing,” the 81-year-old says, pausing after the “so” while thinking of the right words to say.
By all accounts, Burma’s ruler had little time for U Thant, likely due to envy at the renown in which the diplomat was held overseas. U Thant’s long friendship and collaboration with U Nu, the prime minister ousted by Ne Win in Burma’s 1962 coup, most likely didn’t endear U Thant to Burma’s dictator either.
Notoriously, in 1974, after U Thant died and his body was flown home to Burma for burial, Ne Win refused to give a state funeral and sought to keep the repatriation hush-hush. Word spread, however, and Ne Win’s peevish-looking snub of U Thant roused anger in Rangoon, leading to anti-government protests and a tug-of-war over where U Thant should be buried.
In Pantanaw, where the former teacher U Thant had been elevated to near-hero status, there was anger too. “People here were furious, and many, me included, went to Rangoon to protest,” recalls Saw Naing, speaking of the furor that erupted over how U Thant was treated, posthumously, by the Ne Win regime.
Soft-spoken 75-year-old Saw Naing is the prime mover behind the U Thant library, now a half-finished redbrick building site at the edge of Pantanaw.
The library will feature a newly-minted 300-pound bronze bust of U Thant—which is for now housed at the town’s main Buddhist monastery—as well as sheaves of newspaper clippings, photographs and other memorabilia. There will be no shortage of portrait photos of U Thant, for sure, as in Pantanaw a black-and-white shot of the suited secretary-general hangs in most homes—alongside the ubiquitous, framed photo of Burma’s independence leader, Gen Aung San.
But such keepsakes notwithstanding, Saw Naing doesn’t envisage the library as a mere memorial to Pantanaw’s best-known son.
“We hope to have Internet, computers, new books and newspapers,” he says. “It will be a living building for people to work in and know about the world,” he says.
For now the library has a floor and walls, but no roof, windows or doors. It’s a long way from completion, despite US$60,000 in funding provided to date. Half of that money was given by Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, a key Karen leader and former political prisoner, with the remainder made up of donations from Pantanaw business people.
“We need another US$100,000 to finish the job,” says Saw Naing, adding that he already approached both the Irrawaddy regional government and national officials in Naypyidaw, seeking backing, but despite getting verbal support for the library, no money has been forthcoming yet. “At present, no one there is interested,” Saw Naing says, a wry smile opening as he finishes the line.
Daw Gyi says pilgrims come to her house now and then, about 10 this year so far, and mostly academics and embassy officials. “When people come, I show them the letter,” she says, pushing across the table the now-laminated note written by U Thant that, over time, stands as much as a farewell to his homeplace as a bill of receipt.
But both Saw Naing and Daw Gyi are optimistic that the house and library—if and when complete—can together attract a wider range of visitors to Pantanaw, a market town just off the main road from Rangoon to Pathein, the regional capital of Irrawaddy Division.
“We hope tourists and Burmese can both visit,” Saw Naing says.