“ Thant Myint-U is the grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, was an adviser to the president of Burma, and is the author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma. He is in Nepal this week for the Buddha Jayanti celebration in Lumbini, and spoke to Nepali Times about his recollections of his grandfather, and the future development of Lumbini.
Nepali Times: What are some of your earliest memories of your grandfather?
Thant Myint-U: I was eight years old when he died in 1974. We lived together in New York, and so I remember him well: coming home from work in his black Cadillac in a dark overcoat and fedora, puffing on Burmese cigars in his study, his desk piled with books and papers, a photo of Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel behind him, swimming with me in our pool at home, relaxing in a Burmese longyi, enjoying my grandmother’s curries or reading the latest news in the New York Times.
NT: What was the reason behind his determination to get the UN involved in preserving Lumbini?
In those days, the biggest conflict was of course the Cold War and the ideological conflict between communism and capitalist democracy. My grandfather believed that religion could be an ally in the cause of peace. In 1965, Pope Paul came to New York at his invitation, the first Pontiff ever to set foot in the new world, and spoke to a special meeting of the UN General Assembly, calling for an end to war.
It was not long after that he came to Nepal and visited Lumbini. He was incredibly moved, saying it was one of “the most important days in my life”. I think it was only then that he had this particular vision, as a Buddhist but also as the UN Secretary-General, not only to preserve Lumbini but to connect the development of Lumbini as a global centre, representing values of tolerance and non-violence, with the broader cause of world peace.
NT: You yourself have spent some time in Nepal. What would be some suggestions about how to preserve the sanctity of Lumbini.
Yes, I have very fond memories of my year in Kathmandu in 2008. I was not however able to travel to Lumbini, and so have no particular insights on what should be done. I would however say that, as is the case for any of the world’s greatest places, any development should weigh carefully the interests of local people, to ensure they benefit too.
NT: Many people from Burma travel to Buddhist sites in India on pilgrimage. What should be done to attract more of them to the Buddhist circuit in Nepal?
I think the most important thing at this point is simply transport. There are no direct flights from Yangon to Kathmandu, which is really a shame. Our two countries, with so much in the way of shared culture, history and even political experience, can benefit immensely from greater contact. I am sure Lumbini could become a magnet, but I hope the Burmese would then take the opportunity to explore Nepal more generally.