In Thailand, Surin won several elections with the Democrat Party in his southern political stronghold of Nakhon Si Thammarat. He served as deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1995 and foreign minister from 1997 to 2001. The Muslim from a majority Buddhist kingdom was named secretary general of the Asean Secretariat on 2008. He remained active in Asean diplomacy until his death.
Hours before he died yesterday, Surin told the Nikkei Asian Review that Asean could lose “control of its own future”. With conflicting interests and international loyalties, members had increasingly failed to address regional crises, principally the territorial rancour with China in the South China Sea and the Rohingya Muslim ethnic cleansing in 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 his last interview. “We have to prove that we have the ability to lead, to take the region into a better future. If we don’t, others will claim centrality.”
He played an important role in converting the Asean Free Trade Area into the Asean Economic Community in early 2016.
Democrat leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called his death a great loss for the party, nation and world.
His fluent English, gift for public speaking and diplomatic skills helped raise Asean’s global profile.
Surin raised fears about China’s increasing influence in Asean, particularly as US regional engagement was falling under Donald Trump. He called on Asean’s members to be “very, very careful” when choosing friends, as “economic assistance and political leverage will come in one package”.
Surin, from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, was a fellow of Harvard University and the American University in Cairo at the Institute of Higher Council for Islamic Affairs from 1975 until 1977.
Earlier in November, Surin spoke at a conference marking Asean’s 50th anniversary.
He asked the event: “How can we unleash the energy, the creativity, the power of 640 million people onto the platform of Asean?”
Surin warned that cooperation might by in decline.
“It has been an age of multilateralism, talking to each other in a big group [but] the era of multilateralism is disappearing
“Be ourselves, be self-sufficient. Be helpful to each other before we wait for contributions from the outside.”
The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Surin “contributed greatly to the advancement and interest of Asean, as well as the promotion of Asean on the international stage. His outstanding personality, knowledge and wisdom were truly recognised by global leaders.”
He is survived by his wife and three children.
Surin Pitsuwan. Picture credit: Wikimedia