Dr Surin Pitsuwan was born on the 28th of October 1949 in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Southern Thailand. He grew up as a Muslim in an integrated Thai family of Malay descent, in a Buddhist-majority country. He excelled in his studies and academia, graduating in political science from Claremont College, California and later earning his master’s degree (1974) and PhD (1982) at Harvard University in the field of political science and Middle Eastern studies.
Moving into politics
After his PhD, he returned home to teach political science at Thammasat University. In 1986 Dr Surin successfully ran for a Parliamentary seat in his hometown, Nakorn Sri Thammarat, as a member of the Democrat party and held the seat for eight terms.
Dr Surin served dutifully to his country as deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1995 and later as a full-fledged foreign minister from 1997 to 2001 under Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. He was the Chair of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and Chair of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1999-2000.
Beyond the responsibilities held in his home country, Dr Surin was also active on the international scene, participating in international commissions such as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (1999-2001) and the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Security (2001-03). At the time, he was even viewed as a possible candidate to be the Secretary-General of the UN.
Leading as ASEAN’s Secretary-General
Nonetheless, it was his role as ASEAN’s Secretary-General that put Dr Surin in the limelight as Southeast Asia’s chief advocate. He began his five-year tenure in 2008, as the first Thai to serve in the role. Dr Surin was unlike the 11 Secretary-Generals who came before him–throughout his tenure, he played an activist role in the Member States. He questioned principles of the old, and accelerated ASEAN’s inclusive, progressive and multilateral agenda.
During his term, ASEAN gradually moved away from the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of Member States. When Myanmar took steps towards reforms, Dr Surin advocated for a “flexible engagement” policy and called for increasing interactions with its leaders to build people-to-people connectivity between the Member States.
Dr Surin played an imperative role in bringing the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) forward, that gave way to what is now the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). He guided the region through difficult times, facilitating for peace during a period of rising tension particularly on the issue of the South China Sea. He brought greater interaction and unity among the Member States–even succeeding to set up the ASEAN Human Rights Commission following years of criticism of the region’s human rights track record.
It was during his time in office that ASEAN rose to prominence as a major player on the international stage, providing it with the foundations to prosper to where it is today. Professor Amitav Acharya of the American University in Washington D.C. described him as “a hard act to follow.”
Surin Pitsuwan: the ASEAN statesman
Even after leaving office, Dr Surin remained a strong advocate for ASEAN and its regional integration. He strongly believed in ASEAN centrality, and deems that ASEAN has a more global role to play, saying that “ASEAN has to transform this planet for all people.”
Dr Surin was a politician, a diplomat and a scholar. But above all, he embodied all that is good about ASEAN and never wavered in his dreams for this region that he so dearly loved. Many of the principles he espoused continue to be relevant, especially at a time when Dr Surin himself admitted that ASEAN risks “losing control of its own future.”
As we mourn the loss of this true statesman and leader, we must never forget his contributions and sacrifices to the region. Above all, we must continue the work that he has done for ASEAN and, in his own words, “Be self-sufficient. Be helpful to each other before we wait for contributions from the outside.” It is now more vital than ever to progress towards a more prosperous, integrated and united ASEAN.
On behalf of everyone here at the ASEAN Economic Forum, we would like to record our deepest condolences to Dr Surin’s family and loved ones.