Politics / Thai humanitarian and former Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan dies at 68

By: Madeleine Keck - Posted on: December 1, 2017 | Current Affairs

Ex-Thai foreign minister leaves behind a legacy defined by an unyielding advocacy for the advancement of Asean and its interests on the international stage

Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan makes a victory sign as he walks into the plenary session on global issues at the ninth Asia Europe (ASEM) Summit at the National Convention Centre in Vientiane, Laos on 06 November 2012 Photo: Barbara Walton/EPA

Surin Pitsuwan, a committed humanitarian best known for serving as Thailand’s foreign minister and his dedication to advancing Asean on the international stage during his time as secretary-general, has died from heart failure at the age of 68.

“As Foreign Minister, Dr Surin played a key role in the conduct of Thailand’s foreign policy. He contributed greatly to the advancement of Asean and the promotion of Asean interests on the international stage,” Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “His outstanding personality, knowledge and wisdom were truly recognised by global leaders.”

Pitsuwan’s political career began in 1986 when he was initially elected as a Member of Parliament for the Democrat Party. He went on to work as Thailand’s deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1995 before becoming foreign minister underneath then prime minister Chuan Leekpai, serving from 1997 until 2001.

In the aftermath of Thailand’s military coup in 2006, Pitsuwan was elected as the first Thai Asean secretary-general, thanks to an undivided vote by Thailand’s interim cabinet.

Pitsuwan served his five-year term from 2008 to 2012 and during his time as Asean secretary-general he was a strong advocate for shifting the way in which nations within the bloc conducted their interregional affairs, calling for the member states to take a more activist driven approach rather than the blind pursuit of “non-interference in the internal affairs” directive; a strategy that is often used by member nations to sidetrack human rights abuses.

Most notably taking place under Pitsuwan’s term was the inclusion of the US into the East Asian Summit and the mounting of tensions in the South China Sea.

His governance also saw Asean increase aid through the management of materials donated by aid agencies to victims of cyclone Nargis in martial law run Myanmar in 2008, Channel News Asia reported.

Despite the end of his tenure and his return to the Democrat Party, Pitsuwan remained active in regional diplomatic circles and with the international affairs of the region. More recently, he advocated for Asean to take harsher measures to resolve the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where military insurgents have been accused of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingya population.

Pitsuwan – who chaired the Future Innovative Thailand Institute think-tank – remained so heavily involved with the affairs of his country that he announced in June that he had hopes of running for Bangkok governor, despite the coup-installed military government that is now in its third year of rule.

“I am not interested in running for Bangkok governor only to win the post, but I want to show that defence of democracy is possible,” he told the Bangkok Post. “If we can reform Bangkok, we can also reform Thailand.”

Asean announced on its official Twitter page that the ten-member bloc was incredibly troubled to hear of the death of its former secretary-general.

“We are deeply saddened to know that Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of #ASEAN passed away today. It is a big loss to #Thailand and the #ASEANCommunity. We convey our sincere condolences to his family.”