Remembering Former ASEAN Head Surin Pitsuwan

Former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan died of a heart attack last November at the age of 68.

Surin was a veteran lawmaker in Thailand and previously served as its foreign minister. As a Muslim in a Buddhist majority country, he worked to reconcile different religions and ethnicities.

In 2000, he managed to bring the North Korean foreign minister to the ASEAN, or Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum for the first time. He became the 10-member bloc's Secretary General in 2008 and served for 5 years. He advocated for the integration of economies in the region and laid the groundwork for the ASEAN Economic Community which came into being in 2015. Kim Chanju is joined by NHK Special Affairs Commentator, Aiko Doden.

Kim: You've had the opportunity to interview Surin many times. What can you share with us about who he was?

Doden: Surin Pitsuwan was often referred to as “ajarn” in Thai, which translates as teacher or professor. And to many Thais, that's exactly who he was: a mentor and a role model. Many may think of him as a Thai elite. He was US-educated, graduating from Harvard with a PhD. But he was constantly aware of the less privileged. He often reminded people that he was a country boy from Thailand’s rural Muslim South. He was a great speaker in English and in Thai, and was easily approachable to both dignitaries and locals alike because of his background.

Kim: What would you say are his accomplishments as a politician?

Doden: His most significant achievement was perhaps transforming ASEAN from a group of 10 small- and medium-sized economies into a global player. Because of him, many countries now appoint ambassadors to the bloc. He also played a pivotal role in leading Myanmar toward democracy. He encouraged the reclusive state to open up to the international community.

Surin also helped organize recovery efforts in 2008 after Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's history. For the first time, he brought together ASEAN, the UN and the Myanmar government to work together in Yangon. Myanmar then was not receptive to NGOs nor to international aid agencies. He was a friend of Japan too. Shortly after the country was hit by a huge earthquake and tsunami in 2011, he brought in ASEAN youth volunteers to provide emergency relief. At that time, he said ASEAN had moved on from being a recipient of aid to a provider of assistance.

Kim: Surin certainly had big impact as a politician and brought significant results. What does his death mean to Thailand and the region?

Doden: It's a devastating loss for both. He was concerned about the current state of his country. An interim-military government is now past its 3rd year. He said defending democracy in Thailand could start by transforming Bangkok and was preparing to run for governor of the city. Surin was familiar with the West. Because of that, he could represent Thailand and Asia in the international arena. There are few who can articulate the region's challenges and provide a way forward. His voice was heard, and that voice will be missed.