Tue, 25 Jan 2000

Myanmar's U Thant steers United Nations during crisis

By Myint Zan

This is the second of two articles bringing us back to the memories of U Thant's performance as he steered the United Nations free from many global crisis.

BURWOOD, Victoria, Australia (JP): Nevertheless, U Thant also received many criticisms -- some of them were written long after U Thant's death. A few of them were unfair criticism.

Rosemary Righter, a journalist, stated in her book Utopia Unlimited to the effect that the current UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is (in her opinion) "the best Secretary-General since Dag Hammarskjold". Righter also states to the effect that "U Thant was invisible, Waldheim was a liar, Perez De Cuellar would not make waves if he jumped out of a boat, and Boutros-Ghali was always mouthing anti-colonial rhetoric".

She further adds that when Kofi Annan became Secretary-General some persons warned him not to be "a first year U Thant". I will leave the admirers of other Secretaries-General to defend them. But since Righter seems to give a "double whammy" to U Thant one might as well ask: "What did Righter mean when she said Kofi Annan should not become a 'first-Year U Thant'"?

Has Righter heard about the Cuban missile crisis and U Thant's pivotal role in bringing back the United States and the Soviet Union almost from the brink of a nuclear confrontation?

The Cuban crisis occurred in October 1962. U Thant was -- unanimously without opposition and abstention, 103 votes for none against, no abstentions -- elected Acting Secretary -General of the United Nations in November 1961.

U Thant had to face the United Nations and the world's biggest crisis within several months after he became Secretary-General.

Among many other persons the philosopher Bertrand Russell praised U Thant's role in the crisis in his book Unarmed Victory. Time magazine wrote that U Thant played "an instrumental role" in helping to "pull back the super powers from the brink" during the Cuban missile crisis.

In terms of "clear and present danger" the Cuban missile crisis was arguably the most dangerous crisis which faced the United Nations and the international community. The crisis took place during the "first year" of U Thant's tenure as Secretary- General.

Moreover Time wrote in its obituary of U Thant in the Dec. 5, 1974 issue that "Thant took over a UN on the verge of collapse." The Soviets were boycotting U Thant's predecessor Dag Hammarsjold and were instigating for a "troika" of three Secretaries-General from the East, West and the "non-aligned" group. U Thant successfully neutralized these demands and gave leadership to the UN at its greatest time of crisis.

Also U Thant's only son Tin Maung Thant died when he fell from a bus in Rangoon (now Yangon) on May 21, 1962. U Thant was so busy attending to his duties as Secretary-General that he cannot find the time to come to Rangoon for the funeral of his only son. He was only able to visit his son's grave in July 1964 more than two years after his son's death when he first visited Burma as Secretary-General.

In the light of such selfless dedication and achievements one might as well ask Rosemary Righter "Why Should not Kofi Annan be like a first year U Thant"?

One more "defense" of U Thant in relation to what he himself called "the most misunderstood event in UN history". The editorial headline of the Spectator of London of June 6, 1967 screamed U Thant's War.

The Six-Day Middle East war had broken out a day earlier when Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan on June 5, 1967. About two weeks earlier, in May 1967, U Thant had, at the request of President Nasser of Egypt effected the withdrawal of United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) stationed inside Egyptian territory.

The UNEF had acted as a "buffer" between Egypt and Israel. The troops were deployed inside Egyptian territory at the end of the 1956 "Suez canal war" when the joint forces from Israel, Great Britain and France attacked Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez canal.

As a result of the agreement between Nasser and the United Nations, UN troops were allowed to be deployed inside Egyptian territory (Israel refused to allow any UN troops to be stationed inside its territory) with the explicit stipulation that the UNEF had to be withdrawn whenever the Egyptian government so requests.

U Thant followed the agreement and complied with Nasser's request and ordered the withdrawal of the UNEF in May 1967. For this decision U Thant was savagely criticized by many Israeli and Western diplomats, international lawyers and editorial writers like those of The Spectator above.

U Thant himself defended, at length, his decision to withdraw the UNEF. He also recounted not only The Spectator newspaper editorial but also that then U.S. Senator Dirksen had said "U Thant acted like a thief in the night" (in hastily withdrawing the UNEF) U Thant was acting purely in accordance with the mandate negotiated by his successor Dag Hammerskjold with the Egyptian government.

The epithet U Thant's War is indicative of only some of the pointless criticisms that were leveled against him.

It is interesting to compare these criticisms that were directed against U Thant's alleged mishandling of the UNEF withdrawal before the 1967 Middle East war with the comparatively mild criticisms that were leveled against current United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Annan's negligence and inaction during the Rwandan genocide of April/May 1994.

The National Post newspaper of Canada in an editorial of Dec. 18, 1999 entitled Sorry Not Enough has called on Kofi Annan to resign. The editorial narrated that UN Personnel in the field, had warned (by means of confidential faxes), of the possibility of the Rwandan genocide about three months before it occurred.

The faxes were sent to the UN Peacekeeping Headquarters in New York where Annan was then Under Secretary-General of Peacekeeping Operations. Annan did not forward the communications from the UN Personnel to the UN Security Council.

In view of this the National Post editorial stated that "A Secretary-General of the United Nations cannot accept responsibility for inaction in the face of mass murder and expect to remain in office".

This writer does not have any strong opinion as to whether Kofi Annan should resign or not. The writer believes though that it is extremely unlikely that Annan would resign. Even though the National Post used quite strong language in describing a statement made by Annan as "misleading to the point of outright dishonesty" it did not headline its editorial as Kofi Annan's Genocide a la' The Spectator's headline U Thant's War.

It is equally outrageous, sensationalist or cynical to describe the Rwandan genocide as "Kofi Annan's Genocide" (which the National Post did not) as it was to classify the 1967 Middle East War as U Thant's War (which the Spectator did).

I have only selectively "defended" U Thant -- my fellow countryman I should state in all fairness -- against some unfair criticisms and aspersions cast against him.

Some of them were made many years -- even more than two decades after U Thant 's death. I am not saying that U Thant was totally flawless. But his faults were minimal compared to a few other public figures who get off more lightly than U Thant did in terms of criticism. U Thant would be the first to deplore any excessive praise of him.

The writer is sessional lecturer in international law at the School of Law, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia.