With the death of U Nu, Burma has lost one of its great leaders of the century. His political activities dated back to his student days of the 1930s, a time when nationalism was stirring below the surface, and continued up to the present after the democracy uprisings in 1988 brought him back on to the political scene. U Nu was a deeply religious man and one who put the interests of the nation before his own.
He was born in 1907 to U San Htun and his wife Daw Saw Khin, in the town of Wakema, situated on the Irrawaddy about 50 miles from Rangoon. Nu's political sentiments were influenced by his father, an active member of the Young Men's Burmese Association, an independence movement which emerged in Burma at the turn of the century.
When he entered university, Nu found himself part of a rising nationalist movement. Together with the future heroes of independence Aung San and Kyaw Nyein, Nu revived the Rangoon University Students Union. Under their leadership the union became the nerve centre of political, social, cultural and recreational activities for the student population. Already one of the best public speakers in the country, Nu used this talent to mobilise public opinion for the student strike of 1936 which was a rallying point for Burmese nationalist sentiment. Nu used his literary skills to advance this cause and joined the staff of White Owl, a nationalist newspaper. In December 1937, he founded the Nagani (Red Dragon) book club which disseminated nationalist materials. He was also a dramatist and translated books and plays into the Burmese language.
After Burma gained independence in 1947, Nu's key role within the Anti- Fascist People's Freedom League in the struggle against the British led to his nomination as Vice-President of the league by Aung San. The tragic assassination of his long-time friend Aung San in their year of triumph propelled Nu into the role of Prime Minister, a position which he accepted with much reluctance.
Nu had a difficult time as Prime Minister and proved unable to cope with the political divisions within his party and the deteriorating security situation in which a multiplicity of ethnic groups fought for separation. In 1958, he invited General Ne Win to form a caretaker government, in order to restore stability, and prepare for elections in 1960. Although Nu again won those elections, his premiership was short-lived as the military staged a coup in 1962. Nu was imprisoned and after his release he continued his political activities from Thailand and from Britain. Nu always stressed that he was the legitimate leader of his country and, following the democratic uprising in 1988, formed an Alliance for Peace and Democracy. This resulted in his house arrest from which he was released only in 1992.
Nu was a devout Buddhist who tried to incorporate his beliefs into his political life; and several times in his life donned the robes of a Buddhist monk.Nu remained remote from his wife and children as he firmly believed that suffering results from attachment to one's possessions and one's family and friends. He even went so far as to take vows of celibacy and abstention from liquor at the age of 41.
As Prime Minister, Nu created a ministerial post for Religious Affairs. He attempted to create a "Pyidawtha", a heaven on earth, to promote the economic, social, political and moral welfare of the nation. But these good intentions remained largely unrealised. Under his government Burma sponsored the Sixth Great Therevada Buddhist Synod of 1954-56 during which the Kaba-Aye, a peace pagoda and a man-made cave, was constructed. Nu's legacy lives on to the present day.
Some have argued that his religious beliefs impeded his political effectiveness, but Nu was a man who put the interests of the nation before his own, a man who had a very difficult task to perform given the fragile state of his nation. But his radiant personality left an enduring legacy that entwined democracy and Buddhism as a political philosophy which he felt certain would lead the nation forward.
Aye Aye Win
U Nu, teacher, writer, politician: born Wakema, Myaungmaya district 25 May 1907; Prime Minister of Burma 1948-56, 1957-58, 1960-62; died Rangoon 14 February 1995.
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