Our hero on Asean's stage

Our hero on Asean's stage

Surin was the unanimous choice as the first secretary-general of Asean, and served from 2008 to 2013. (File photo)
Surin was the unanimous choice as the first secretary-general of Asean, and served from 2008 to 2013. (File photo)

The sudden death of Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister and Asean secretary-general, is a great loss, not only to Thai politics but also international affairs.

A Thai Muslim from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surin was a bright student from a rural area of the southern region who later shone as the country's top diplomat thanks to his perseverance.

In his childhood, he studied in his hometown and was accepted to a university in the US.

He came back soon after to Thailand, and began his career as a political scientist, teaching at Thammasat University before returning to the US and joining the Ivy-league Harvard University.

He returned to Thailand with a doctorate in political science and Middle Eastern studies and resumed his teaching job at Thammasat.

It was in 1986 that he decided to change career path, despite his great potential as a scholar, to pursue his interest in politics, joining the Democrat Party, where he became a rising star in national politics from that year.

Surin will be remembered for his vision and achievements.

He was a seven-time MP for the southern province, and became foreign minister under the Chuan Leekpai government in 1997, before climbing the party ranks to be deputy leader.

While most politicians tended to let technocrats or civil servants run the ministry, Surin proved he was different.

As foreign minister, Surin was instrumental in broadening the definition of national interests by incorporating universal principles such as human rights and human security into Thai foreign policy. In fact, he was among the first politicians to champion such universal causes.

He also coined a remarkable diplomatic term of "flexible engagement", in dealing with then military-ruled Burma before it eventually joined Asean in 1997.

His "flexible engagement" policy was a major shift from the so-called constructive engagement that dwelt heavily on the principle of non-interference in other members' internal affairs which was strictly adhered to by his predecessors.

Instead, Surin, as Thai foreign minister, recommended the grouping extend help to member nations when they needed it.

When Thai politics turned stagnant with chronic conflicts that ended in the 2006 coup, Surin expanded his career at the regional level.

He became Asean secretary-general in 2008. He was the second Thai to hold the prestigious position and helped raise the group's international profile, with the Asean charter in place as a legal entity.

He was instrumental in drafting the Asean human rights declaration, which was followed by the formation of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights 2009 before he completed his job as head of the regional bloc.

It was said he set a high standard as Asean secretary-general.

One columnist said Surin was "one of the first rational voices to call for a more proactive Asean" when he urged the group to intervene to help calm the violence that flared up in Myanmar's Rakhine state in the early 2010s.

It is believed that given his calibre, Surin was qualified to be a candidate for UN secretary-general under the Asian quota when Kofi Anan completed his term in 2007. Unfortunately, national politics, in which Surin was a member of the then opposition party, made that choice impossible.

After completing his term as Asean secretary general in 2012, he emerged as a key figure in forming the "Future Innovative Thailand Institute" -- a research agency for sustainable development.

Before his untimely death, Surin expressed an interest in local politics. In an interview with this newspaper, he said he wanted to run for governor of Bangkok.

Thailand has lost one of its great sons whose service to the country inspires deep pride.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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