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Statesman who raised ASEAN's international profile

Former Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan sought reform and cohesion

Surin Pitsuwan, then secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, speaks during a lecture in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.   © Reuters

Southeast Asia is a hard region for anyone to straddle. There is no common language, sovereignty is strongly asserted, and there are plenty of deeply-felt enmities. If there was one man in recent history who managed to overcome some of these obstacles and project the region's vitality and importance it was Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand, who died of a heart attack on Nov. 30 at the age of 68.

Surin was best known as a gregarious, always obliging, and highly articulate statesman who first came to prominence as foreign minister of Thailand in the 1990s, and later served as secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2008-2013. Had it not been for the political polarization of his country from the turn of the century, Surin might have been chosen to replace Kofi Annan as United Nations secretary-general. There was a lot of international support for his candidacy at the time.

With a clear, authoritative voice and a superb command of the English language, Surin presented a credible, assured face to the world in a region that more often confuses and confounds its international partners. He was frequently consulted by major powers in search of answers. But his outward idealism and optimism for the region belied a deep sense of pragmatism; he had a keen sense of the obstacles, whether it was reforming government or effective regional action.

Surin's lasting legacy will be how he sometimes overcame these obstacles to do some good. As Thai foreign minister in the late 1990s, Surin was confronted by appalling violence in East Timor. ASEAN as a whole was reluctant to get involved, especially as Indonesia, the largest member state, resisted intervention. Surin resorted to what he called "quiet diplomacy" to see what could be done.

As he put it much later: "We mobilized those who were willing and able, and therefore avoided the need for a full consensus, which would have been impossible to achieve." As a result, Thailand became the first ASEAN nation to join a coalition of foreign peacekeepers that went into East Timor in September 1999. Surin also helped to facilitate the entry of ASEAN peacekeepers into Aceh, an Indonesian province troubled by violence, three years later.

When Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in May 2008, Surin was only a few months into his job as ASEAN secretary-general. He had already started to raise hackles in some member state's capitals by pointing out that part of his mandate was to provide good offices to help resolve disputes. Most of his ASEAN ministerial colleagues were steeped in the bedrock principle of noninterference, and regarded Surin as a risky operator.

The devastating tropical storm that swept across the densely populated delta region of southern Myanmar, killing tens of thousands of people, presented a clear case of the need for outside help. But Myanmar's inward-looking military regime feared that humanitarian intervention would open the door to pressure for political reform and change. Surin's swift diplomacy, triangulated between regional capitals, the major powers and the U.N. gave birth to a creative tripartite relief effort, which ASEAN spearheaded.

One of his staffers, Mely Caballero Anthony, accompanied Surin on a visit to Myanmar in 2012. She later described Surin arriving in Daw Nyein, a village affected by the cyclone, where he was greeted with flowers and smiles. "He proceeded to address the crowd, explaining why it was important for ASEAN to connect once again with the people of Myanmar after their traumatic experience with Cyclone Nargis," she wrote. "Above the deafening cheers of, 'Cyclone, No More!' and 'ASEAN, Yes, Yes,' Surin delivered a simple yet powerful message to the villagers ... that ASEAN stands behind Myanmar in its hour of need and in moments of hope. ASEAN, he says, is for all the people of ASEAN."

Significant obstacles

As much as Surin tried to promote a more inclusive ASEAN community, he faced significant obstacles, and was ultimately defeated by suspicious member states and a poorly resourced secretariat with a budget of less than $20 million a year.

Even so, he managed to leave his mark. The ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center, established in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, is operating today on the ground in Rakhine State, Myanmar, where it is delivering modest amounts of aid. Surin backed the idea of establishing an ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, which he hoped would provide a platform for dispute resolution in the region. IPR is now established, but operates with difficulty because member states insist on determining which conflicts can be explored, which in reality means none.

After leaving ASEAN in 2013, Surin embarked on a ceaseless whirl of international engagements that helped him to highlight Southeast Asia's vitality on the world stage. He advised the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and Nippon Foundation in Japan, and served on the boards of International IDEA in Sweden and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.

In these roles, Surin continued to use quiet diplomacy to promote peace and reconciliation. At the time of his death, Surin was helping other senior ASEAN statesmen to devise a strategy to engage with Myanmar to address the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, and had been approached by the U.N. to assume the role of special envoy.

He was at a loss, however, to explain Thailand's regression under military rule. Having served as a member of parliament for almost two decades, he was as comfortable on the stump in his home town of Nakhorn Si Thammarat, where his mother still runs an Islamic college, as he was at the podium in international conferences. But his beloved Democrat Party was tarnished in the eyes of Thai voters -- its leadership associated with the military regime.

The need to help recover Thailand's mantle as a democracy drove Surin in the last year of his life to contemplate a run for the elected governorship of Bangkok, where he lived with his family. Many friends questioned this course of action, as it would inevitably involve cooperation with the military junta, which many doubt is serious about returning the country to a fully democratic state.

Surin was characteristically bullish about the future, though. Just days before his sudden death due to heart failure, he expressed frustration to a friend about the junta's clumsy handling of a local community protest against a coal mining operation close to his home town.

Surin regarded his final mission as helping the army to leave power gracefully and without further violence. Perhaps misguidedly, he considered that local elections, such as the one in Bangkok, could pave the way. He cannot be faulted for trying. Many others have simply enjoyed the international circuit and turned their backs on a hopeless situation.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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