1974 U Thant uprising – a first hand account

Believe it or not, our small group of about 50 students from the RIT’s First Year Section-D unknowingly started the 1974 student uprising. The beginning of the so-called “U Thant Uprising” was the day I will never forget even though, nowadays, I can’t really recall the exact date. Then in 1974, I was a first year engineering student at the famous Soviet-built Rangoon Institute of Technology. (Bastard generals changed her name to some Yangon Technical University or some idiotic name later just to break her rebellious tradition.)

We, the whole class of First Year Section-D, were in the lecture hall 1-3-16 or 1-3-18, I don’t really remember now, without even noticing the secret preparation for the uprising, seriously following the lecture as usual. Suddenly a couple of senior students busted into the lecture theater and simply told us to get out and into the waiting buses just outside on the campus ground.

“Are you boys wearing hta-meins (women’s sarong in Burmese) or what? Be a man and join us to protest the unfair treatment of our famous son of the land,” that was their loud battle cry to jolt us out of the lecture hall and onto the buses. The reason for the protest was mad Ne Win’s military government’s refusal to build a memorial and tomb for the former UN General Secretary, the late U Thant.

They were going to bury U Thant’s body at Kyandaw Cemetery, and only later reluctantly agreed to let the general public show their respect at the ground of Kyaikasan Racing Ground. The funeral casket was displayed on a stand and the public were to queue up in many long lines under a brightly shining sun to give the last deserving respect to the famous son of our land.

But on that particular day General Ne Win made a serious mistake. He banned the public from the ground and allowed only the 3000 strong students of our RIT and the students from Rangoon Arts and Science University, RASU. So the senior students took the rare opportunity to stage the uprising without even letting us juniors know in advance.

When we got there at the Kyaikasan Ground we were somehow positioned right across the field from the stand where U Thant’s coffin was. We could clearly see the silvery colored casket and the fierce-looking throng of Military Police, civilian police, and many government officials.

As we were patiently or unknowingly standing by our buses for our turn in line to reach the coffin, one senior student climbed onto the roof of one nearby bus and started giving us a rousing speech. That was the first time and only time I saw the famous student leader Tin Maung Oo close-up. He wasn’t even from our RIT, he was from RASU, but he was clever enough to choose us as the spearhead of his carefully-planned uprising. We RIT students are famous for our fighting spirits as almost of all us are boys and young men.

The summary of his rousing speech was that U Thant should be treated with more respect than Ne Win’s thugs had so far shown and we the brave RIT students had to take matter into our hands, so take the coffin, and build a deserving memorial for U Thant on the ground of historical Rangoon University Campus.

Then he jumped down from the bus roof and started energetically attacking the about five-foot-tall iron-bar-fence which stood between us and the stand. We just followed him and the fence immediately collapsed and the individual fence poles became the weaponry for the brutal assault on the security forces guarding the coffin.

It was a blood bath on the manicured lawn. Many officials were either bashed or stabbed where they stood trying to stop the young students rushing towards them with murderous intents. I even saw a senior driving his pointed iron pole through the fat body of a police officer already flat on the ground. I didn’t know how many exactly were killed there. Only a few days later, the government announced that the rioting students had killed at least 20 officials and injured many more that day.

To make the story short, as we reached the coffin a few seniors tried to lift the casket. I even gave a hand, but the coffin was so heavy it wouldn’t budge. But many more hands joined in and they eventually rigged a crude carrier and we lifted the coffin onto our shoulders and brought it all the way to RASU.

On the way, we the marching band of rouge students were cheered and waved by many people standing by the sides of the roads as the news spread like wildfire all over Rangoon. They were giving us food, water, and cold drinks as if they could correctly guess that we were almost starving. I even managed to grab a
boiled egg or two while I was still carrying U Thant’s heavy coffin.

It took us, the whole marching mob of at least 5000, more than 4 or 5 hours to reach the RASU campus by night fall. Once we got there the seniors decided to lay the coffin inside the Grand Old Convocation Hall. Us students were then organized by many seniors into various committees and sub-committees. Me and a
group of my classmates ended up as the foot soldiers of a security sub-committee. We manned the now-closed iron gates of the big campus and had to check everyone coming or going through the gates.

We didn’t even go home, and the first few nights were like a fun-filled carnival, celebrating the rare moment of freedom. Every night, on the lawn right in front of the Convocation Hall, many seniors took turns to deliver rousing speeches of our uprising. We were on a high all the time there in our own campus fortress. We also didn’t need to worry about our food as the whole of Rangoon had sent us truck loads of packed meals, Hta-Min-Dotes. The army and socialist government also left us alone for, I think, at least the first two or three weeks.

Architectural students from our RIT designed the U Thant Memorial on the sacred ground of old Student Union building, notoriously blown up with many students still inside by Ne Win’s thugs just after 1962 coup, and our Civil Engineering students built the grave. Later U Thant’s coffin was moved into the new tomb. It was a very rare moment of triumph and freedom for all of us inside the campus.

The trouble started only later in the third week. The now-distressed government started sending their agents into the campus, and so many of them were caught by ever alert students as most of them were old or at least middle-aged men, who stood out among the young students. The ugly head of violence started
showing up again among us. Every night, the security students with masks on their faces would bring out the already tortured and confessed spies into the large student crowd right in front of the RASU Convocation Hall and threw them to the violent mob waiting ready for the blood. The brutal beating and bashing would go on every night as the situation became totally out of control from the student leaders inside the Convocation Hall. Some old men from the local government councils sent in as the informants were killed there on the spot.

One night, the blood thirsty crowd decided to go out of the campus to stage a violent attack on the Hle-Dan Police Station right outside of the RASU on the Prome Road. I followed them with a burning torch in my hand and ended up just outside the Police Station which had a high fence. Their original plan was to
torch the Police Station. As we gathered there many student leaders came out of the campus and tried to
persuade the students to abandon the imminent attack on the police station and come back inside the campus. During their heated arguments, me and a few students bravely crossed the wide road and peered through the cracks in the timber-planked-fence and what I saw frightened me to the bone.

Inside the large police compound were the truck loads of armed soldiers ready to fire. Their arm badges showed they were from two Chin Rifle Battalions under the Light Infantry Division 88 then stationed in Middle Burma. As a former soldier myself, I knew very well these Chin Troops were fighting the Communists on the Chinese border and their presence here signaled the imminent assault on the Campus. They are notorious for their brutality and ruthlessness towards their enemies.

As we didn’t want to be facing their G3 rifles, once we knew the army presence, we came back inside and that was the last night of our pathetic little rebellion against the ruthless military government. My tail tugged between my legs, I came back home early morning and luckily my uncle who ran a ferry boat
between Rangoon and our little Delta town was at home and he brought me back to his house as my mother had asked.

That night, while I was peacefully asleep on the boat on my trip away from the troubles in Rangoon, the Chin Troops circled the RASU Campus watertight and violently attacked the rebelling students inside. Witnesses later recalled that, true to their well-known reputation, the battle-hardened Chin soldiers
killed many hundreds and captured thousands of students during that first night of the week long brutal assault on the RASU Campus.

According to many witnesses that first night of assault was a bloodbath in the campus. The brave or naive students who wrongly believed that the UN flag would protect them and thus gathered at the new U Thant’s grave were clubbed and bayoneted to death right there by the grave under the huge blue UN flag that
accompanied the coffin all the way from New York UN Headquarters. Many female students were rumored to be gang raped and later killed by the Chin soldiers.

A few years later I ran into an old school friend who went to DSA and became a navy officer, and he told me the sordid tale of how they rid the bodies of slain students, of course after plying him with a bottle of scotch and plenty of satay-sticks at Chinatown. The Chin soldiers loaded the dead and dying from the scene of massacre onto the sand-filled Hino TE-11 trucks and, in the middle of the dark night, took them to the sand-filled naval barges waiting at the Than-Lhyet-Soon Naval Base. The bodies, many were still half-alive according to him, were then taken and dumped into the crocodile-infested waters by the sea.
Later that night I wept remembering some of my friends vanished forever after that uprising.

During that night of massacre inside the RASU only a few students managed to hide from the bastards and one of them was my own kid brother. He wasn’t even a university student but a high school student. Just that evening he had an argument with our mother and, probably just to spite her, he went into the RASU
campus just in time to get caught up in the assault. He and some other students hid in a drain and were only caught two days later by the searching Burmese soldiers. They were severely beaten and then sent to the notorious Insein Prison with the rest.

The assault on the campus caused a mass riot all over Rangoon and the army declared martial law and took stern actions against the civilian populace. The soldiers totally took over downtown Rangoon. Long hair was popular at that time and the soldiers used their bayonets to chop the hair of any young male caught
unfortunately by them on the streets of Rangoon.

The leader Tin Maung Oo and his sister somehow managed to escape to the border and rejoined U Nu’s Exile Rebels. Later the army said the uprising was planned with the money from U Nu and not a spontaneous one as we thought. A few months later Tin Maung Oo and his sister sneaked back into Rangoon with a cache of
hand grenades, but was caught by the army and immediately tried and hanged at the Rangoon Jail.

It took almost a year and a lot of kyats to get my 15 year old brother released from the prison and he wasn’t the same sweet boy any longer. He was extremely lucky as many of my classmates didn’t get out until many years later and when they got out they were kicked out of RIT for life. Two of my classmates were never seen again and their mothers still cried whenever I visited their houses even many years later. The universities were closed for over 6 months and we had to take our first year final exams in the respective local high schools.

The only outcome of all those lives lost and the massive suffering was a shoddy memorial for U Thant rushed by Ne Win government as a late compromise and, I think, still standing today near Shwe Dagon Pagoda. The army broke the student-built grave, stole the coffin, and re-buried it there during the middle of a very dark night.

By this personal account of what happened during the so called U Thant Uprising I remember the fallen students of RIT and salute them for their sacrifices and bravery for their country.

May Their Souls Rest In Peace as Ne Win’s Dark Soul Burns In Hell.

About Hla Oo, Guest Contributor