By Roy Mabasa
The Philippines joined other nations in paying tribute to former Thai Foreign Minister and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan who passed away due to acute heart attack on Thursday.
The 68 year-old Surin was in Manila last month where he spoke at the High-Level Forum on ASEAN @ 50 as part of the Philippine hosting of the 31st ASEAN Summit and related meetings.
“He was eloquent and was able to explain ASEAN’s efforts in community building with ease both to ordinary people and ASEAN external partners,” the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement issued over the weekend.
DFA Sec, Alan Peter Cayetano, who is in Hong Kong and Macau visiting the Filipino communities in those areas, said: “He will be forever remembered for his efforts in strengthening the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat as the nerve center of ASEAN during his term as ASEAN Secretary-General.”
He noted Surin’s considerable success in raising public awareness of ASEAN’s contributions to peace and prosperity.
While speaking in Manila last month, Surin outlined a vision for ASEAN for the next 50 years and even challenged the regional bloc to “unleash the creativity, the power of 640 million people onto the platform of ASEAN.
Surin was Thai foreign minister from 1998-2001, and served as ASEAN Secretary General from 2008 to 2012.
Most notably, he got his confirmation as ASEAN secretary general during the gathering of the Association’s foreign ministers at the 40th annual meeting in Manila in July 2007.
Several senior diplomats said Surin’s tenure at ASEAN saw the rise of the regional organization into an “important global player in international affairs.”
“He will be a hard act to follow,” said his former colleague, Prof. Amitav Acharya of the American University in Washington D.C.
They said that it was under Surin’s stewardship that ASEAN moved away from the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of member states that had been used by some to deflect criticisms of their human rights records, and the regional bloc succeeded in establishing its own Human Rights Commission.
This followed Surin’s advocacy of a policy of “flexible engagement” towards Myanmar when he was the chief diplomat of Thailand from 1997 through 2000.
He called for increasing interactions with Myanmar leaders when they took steps towards reforms, and building people-to-people contacts between nations.
Surin, they added, would be remembered for guiding ASEAN through challenging times, including the opening up of Myanmar, the United States entry into the East Asia Summit, and rising tensions over the South China Sea.
Earlier, the United States described Surin as a “great Southeast Asian statesman” and a “champion of the Thai people, an eloquent advocate for all of Southeast Asia, and a dear friend of the United States.
“In his many endeavors—as Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Foreign Minister of Thailand, journalist, legislator, educator, and humanitarian—he advanced international understanding and stood staunchly for democratic values. Dr. Surin had a genuine appreciation of the United States, where he obtained advanced degrees from several of our finest universities and served as a Congressional fellow early in his career,” the US State Department said in its statement.