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Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary general of ASEAN, dies

In his last interview, Surin calls on regional bloc to choose friends wisely, be more self-reliant

Surin Pitsuwan gives an exclusive interview to the Nikkei Asian Review on Nov. 30, just hours before his death. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

BANGKOK -- Surin Pitsuwan, the former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), died in Bangkok on Thursday of a heart attack. He was 68.

Surin was ASEAN secretary general from 2008 to 2012, and worked hard to bring unity and purpose to the grouping's ten economically and politically divergent members. 

He played an important role taking the ASEAN Free Trade Area forward into the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which finally kicked off at the start of 2016. 

His fluency in English, gift for public speaking and diplomatic skill helped raise the global profile of the regional group. Yet he was far more than just a storyteller. He was passionate about ASEAN and its potential.

On taking office, he immediately began to spearhead reform. At the time, ASEAN was mockingly referred to as "NATO" -- no action, talk only -- for not dealing with serious issues within the bloc and hiding behind the principle of not intervening in domestic affairs.

Even after stepping down, he remained a powerful advocate for ASEAN at international conferences and forums.

In an exclusive interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday morning, just a few hours before his passing, Surin said ASEAN risks  "losing control of its own future." With conflicting interests and external loyalties, members have increasingly failed to address thorny regional issues, notably the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea and the Rohingya humanitarian crisis in northwestern Myanmar.

"ASEAN's centrality is weakening on problems that are on the landscape of ASEAN and should be resolved and managed by ourselves," Surin said in what was to be his last interview. "We have to prove that we have the ability to lead, to take the region into a better future," he said. "If we don't, others will claim centrality."

Surin was concerned about China's rising influence in the region, particularly at a time when U.S. regional engagement has become even more uncertain under President Donald Trump. He called on member states to be "very, very careful" in choosing friends. "Economic assistance and political leverage will come in one package," he said.

One of the suggestions he put forward was that ASEAN establish its own infrastructure development fund using the surplus foreign reserves of each member state.

"ASEAN at 50 is facing a middle-age crisis," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We have come this far but to go further we need to re-examine many assumptions that have led us here, such as non-interference, absolute sovereignty, and dependency on external help."

Born in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surin grew up a Muslim in a Buddhist-majority country. Coming from a minority background instilled in him a determination to tackle cross-border difficulties and push for regional cooperation.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1982, and returned home to pursue a career as a political scientist and newspaper columnist.

As a Muslim who understood the West, Surin became acquainted with Islamic intellectuals such as former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie, which broadened his international outlook.

In 1986, he entered politics and won a parliamentary seat as a member of the Democrats, the country's oldest political party with a strong support base in the south. He served as deputy foreign minister and then foreign minister in the two cabinets of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai (1992-1995 and 1997-2001). He was viewed by some observers at that time as a possible candidate for secretary general of the United Nations, although he had no direct experience of the organization. 

As foreign minister, Surin was involved in Thailand's recovery efforts from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and pursued a liberal, multilateral agenda. He was replaced in 2001 when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister following a landslide election victory.

"He had the talents of a diplomat, being keen and well-versed on international matters," Chuan told the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday. "At the same time, he came from the countryside and understood the problems of the people well. We have lost a good man with good intentions to work for the people and country."

In his last interview, Surin confirmed his intention return to politics, possibly with a run at the Bangkok governorship. "Thailand needs decent democracy," he said, adding that the current military government has stayed too long. 

"The people lost confidence in democracy when democracy was used to fulfill personal interests," he said, alluding to Thaksin's populist governments. 

"Surin was unrivaled in his expertise, experience, dedication, and public service to Southeast Asia and Thailand," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "He was a bridge between ASEAN and Thailand, and the outside world."

Nikkei staff writer Hiroshi Kotani in Bangkok contributed to this article.

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