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February 29, 2020

Commemorating U Thant’s 111th and Perez De Cuellar’s 100th Birthday

  • Javier Perez de Cuellar (Peru) 1982-1991
  • u-thant

22 January 2020 is (using historic present tense) the 111th birthday of U Thant, 3rd Secretary-General of the United Nations. U Thant was born in what was then in Pantanaw on 22 January 1909 and passed away in New York, United States on 25 November 1974.
The fifth Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru was born in Lima, Peru on 19 January 1920 and celebrated his 100th birthday on 19 January 2020. Current (and 9th) Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres (of Portugal) had sent messages of felicitations ‘on behalf of all United Nations’ on his distinguished and long-lived predecessor’s 100th birthday.
In the complimentary sense of the words both U Thant and Perez De Cuellar were ‘accidental Secretaries-General’.
U Thant was the permanent representative of Burma (as it was then formally called) to the United Nations when the second United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold tragically died in a plane crash in Ndola, what was then Northern Rhodesia on 17 September 1961.
Even before Dag Hammarskjold passed away the then Soviet Union was proposing or ‘touting’ that instead of a single Secretary-General there should be three (or) ‘troika’ of Secretaries-General, so to speak, one from the West or Western bloc (‘First World’) , one from the East or Soviet bloc (‘Second World’ ) and one from the developing countries (‘Third World’).
In his posthumously published memoirs View from the UN(1978, Double Day publishing) U Thant recounted how he and the UN members overcame (so to speak) this Soviet proposal. In a secret vote on 3 November 1961 the United Nations General Assembly elected him 101 votes for none-against and with no abstention as the third (initially ‘acting’) Secretary-General of the United Nations. (For the past 30 years or so in United Nations practice after the UN Security Council recommended a candidate or a person as Secretary-General there were no longer formal taking of votes: the UN General Assembly approved the Security Council’s recommendation by ‘acclamation’.)
When his first term as UN Secretary- General (UNSG) was about to end in 1966 U Thant initially stated that he would step down but later on he relented and served a second term. This writer clearly recalls seeing an article in Newsweek magazine with U Thant on the cover. Newsweekwrote that ‘delegate after delegate took the rostrum [in the General Assembly of the United Nations] and pleade the Secretary-General to reconsider[to accept a second term as UNSG]’.
Eleven months before his second term ended in December 1971 U Thant made an announcement on 23 January 1971 that ‘under no circumstances whatever’ he would accept a third term as UNSG. Notwithstanding this announcement all the veto-wielding Permanent members of the UN Security Council requested U Thant to stay on for a third term which he categorically and repeatedly refused to serve.
U Thant wrote in his memoirs that less than a month before his second term ended when the United Nations could not find a successor and that ‘he felt terribly sick’. When the United Nations Security Council finally agreed on his successor (Kurt Waldheim of Austria) U Thant in his farewell address to the UN General Assembly stated that he ‘felt a sense of great relief bordering on liberation in laying down the burdens of office’.
The New York Times honored U Thant in an editorial in its 29 December 1971 issue entitled ‘The Liberation of U Thant’. The last sentence of the editorial reads: ‘The wise counsel of this dedicated man of peace will still be needed after his retirement’.
In stark contrast, the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, the fourth UNSG who had lied about his Nazi past unashamedly campaigned for a third term. Only the exercise of veto by the People’s Republic of China for a total of sixteen times in the UN Security Council rejecting Waldheim’s candidacy prevented Waldheim from serving a third term.
Javier Perez de Cuellar (‘Perez’) was also, in the complimentary sense of the words ‘an accidental Secretary-General’ when the UN Security Council elected Perez as Waldheim was finally forced to withdraw his candidacy.
The veteran statesman Perez did not seek and definitely did not campaign for the UNSG post. A Time magazine news report at the time of the election of Perez as the fifth UN Secretary-General in December 1981 stated that Perez have been favorably compared to the ‘self-effacing’ U Thant.
Apart from the first UNSG Trygve Lie, Perez was the only (future) UN Secretary –General present at the ‘creation’ (so to speak of the UN) when he (as he wrote in Pilgrimage for Peace: A Secretary-General’s Memoir published 1995) as a 26 year old officer of the Peruvian Foreign Office attended the first United Nations General Assembly meeting in London in February 1946. Nearly 36 years later on 1 January 1982 Perez became the fifth Secretary-General of the United Nations where he served with distinction for 10 years until 31 December 1991. In his message of felicitations and honor the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised his distinguished predecessor’s involvement with the United Nations going back over 70 years to 1946.
After Perez allof the subsequent UNSGs not only did seek but (except in the case of Kofi Annan) openly and actively campaigned to get what the first UNSG Trygve Lie has called ‘the most impossible job on this Earth’ (though definitely not an un-coveted one).
Like U Thant, Perez was requested to stay on for a third-term as UNSG including by then US President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and by other UN members but like U Thant he declined.
In the post UNSG career the paths of U Thant and Perez (they have met each other when U Thant was Secretary-General) diversified. Less than three years after he retired U Thant died of cancer in New York in November 1974 and in his native Burma (later Myanmar) ruling authorities for over 30 years ‘ignored’ or marginalized him, so to speak, until about 2011. In a speech given in the Burmese language at the United Nations General Assembly around 2013 then President U Thein Sein said ‘we will always honor the memory of U Thant’.
Both U Thant and Perez of course have had their own critics. Some of these critiques were quite severe if not savage then mocking and definitely uncalled for and unjustified. A journalist one Rosemary Righter wrote that ‘U Thant was invisible …. Perez would not make waves if he jumped from a boat’. Among many others is Righter aware that when U Thant’s son died on 21 May 1962 U Thant was so dedicated to his job and so encumbered with (as he stated 9 years later) ‘burdens of office’ that he did not attend his own son’s funeral?
The graciousness if not magnanimity of Perez can be seen in 1995 during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the United Nations Then Perez’s successor the sixth Secretary-General the late Boutros-Ghali decided not to invite both Kurt Waldheim and Perez, as former UNSGs to New York since Waldheim, as a former Nazi, was barred from entering the United States. Waldheim phoned from Austria to Perez in Peru to verify that Perez too was, like him, not invited. Perez wrote that he ‘understood’ Boutros-Ghali’s decision.
Since 2001 the United Nations University in Tokyo has held the annual ‘U Thant Distinguished Lecture’. The first ‘U Thant Lecture’ was given by a very different personality from that of U Thant at times irascible, if not arrogant then –and as of January 2020- current Prime Minister of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. The writer’s humble view is that the first U Thant Lecture should have been given by Javier Perez de Cuellar, U Thant’s distinguished successor.
Perez de Cuellar was at the helm of the United Nations when quite a few other international events of note and significance occurred. There was the Argentine ‘invasion’ of Malvinas/Falkland Islands and its recapture by the British naval and marine forces (April to June 1982) which Perez unsuccessfully- though no fault of his own- tried to solve amicably.
Indeed as the winds (or is it drones or missiles?) of war seem to be ‘blowing’ between the United States ‘under Trump’ and Iran ‘under the Ayatollahs’ one is reminded of what then United Nations Secretary-General Perez De Cuellar said when he stated that the 1991 Gulf War (Gulf War I) (‘triggered by the late Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq and the UN Security Council Resolution 678/1990 authorizing the use of ‘all necessary means’- read military force- to evict Iraq from Kuwait) was ‘not a United Nations war’.
Contrast this candid statement with-dare I say it-the overrated, in some circles- the late Kofi Annan’s equivocation when asked point-blank by a BBC interviewer around 2004 as to whether the 2003 ‘Gulf War II’ was illegal or unlawful. The interviewer had to ask the seventh UN Secretary-General at least twice before Annan replied almost reluctantly, ‘shyly’ that ‘it was unlawful according to the United Nations Charter’.
Compared this equivocation of Annan with that Secretary-General U Thant’s fairly consistent albeit polite critiques of the United States’ role in the Vietnam war since the mid-1960s leading Readers Digestto call him (in the negative sense of the words) ‘a Burmese Marxist’. At the same time in his home country ‘other’ Burmese Marxists had fairly strongly criticized U Thant for siding with the Americans during the Vietnam war!
Dag Hammarskjold (posthumously) in 1961 and Kofi Annan forty years later in 2001 were the only UN Secretaries-General who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (On behalf of the United Nations Emergency Forces then Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988).
The young (16 year old) Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg will certainly be (re)nominated for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. U Thant was nominated for the Nobel peace prize a few times (the Nobel peace prize archives did state the nominees list up to around the year 1967) but he never received the Nobel prize. It is extremely unlikely that the 100 year old Javier Perez de Cuellar would even be nominated by any person or organization for the Nobel peace prize for 2020 though – in this writer’s opinion, like U Thant they were –and are- deserving candidates.
It is an honour to give my respectful appreciation and tribute in commemoration of the late U Thant’s 111th birthday and Perez de Cuellar’s 100th birthday.
(Dr. Myint Zan is Professor (retired) Multimedia University Malacca, Malaysia )

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