If there is one face with which many would identify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today, it has got to be that of its outgoing Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. Khun Surin has presided over the organization at perhaps one of its most crucial historical moments, having to deal with the immense and complex challenges, both internal as well as external, that the region faces.
The fact that the 10 member countries have become better integrated today in spite of massive factors pulling them apart and that ASEAN has seen its stature in the region and the world rising cannot be separated from the effective role that Khun Surin has played since he moved to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta on Jan. 1, 2008.
Khun Surin will be sorely missed when he leaves office next week after five years. Of all the 12 secretaries-general who have come and gone since 1976, he has been the most effective. A politician and a scholar by training, the former Thai foreign minister not only brought prestige to the office but also helped push ASEAN’s rise and growth in prominence regionally and internationally.
Khun Surin pushed the envelope as far as he could within the limited mandate of his office. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. He had a good rapport working with the yearly rotating ASEAN chair, including Indonesia in 2011.
He could explain ASEAN and the current drive toward a Southeast Asian community from 2015 with such eloquence and articulation, not only to outsiders but more importantly to ASEAN people who are still not entirely sold on the community idea.
The ASEAN Charter, which became the foundation on which to build the community, came into force in December 2008 to provide him with the basis on which to encourage members to speed up the process of regional integration.
In various media interviews, Khun Surin regarded this as the biggest challenge he had to deal with in the last five years. He personally thought that ASEAN countries were not moving as fast as they should in the community drive. ASEAN leaders, for example, have agreed this year, to postpone the launch of the ASEAN community to the end, rather than the beginning, of 2015.
Khun Surin also worked effectively with the different ASEAN chairs in the “constructive engagement” diplomacy with Myanmar, a member country, to prod its military junta to open up politically.
The dramatic change in Myanmar’s politics this year cannot be separated from ASEAN’s carrot-and-stick approach, including denying the regime the right to chair ASEAN until it showed some genuine efforts to give more political freedom to its people. Myanmar now looks set to take that chair in 2014.
In the coming years, ASEAN will face no less complex challenges, including resolving border disputes among member countries and the territorial rows between some members and China in the South China Sea. These, along with regional integration and the ASEAN Community 2015, will take up much of the time of the incoming secretary-general, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh.
Will ASEAN be able to tackle these challenges? Will the ASEAN Community 2015 really happen?
ASEAN leaders may want to take up Khun Surin’s recommendation that they provide the secretary-general with a stronger mandate and greater authority to represent and act on behalf of the group. As good and effective as he was in office, he believed he could have done more if ASEAN had changed its cumbersome decision-making mechanism by way of consensus.
The fact that ASEAN will be chaired by smaller states in the next three years in the run up to 2015 — Brunei, Myanmar and Laos will take their turns — is all the more reason why ASEAN needs a more active and effective secretary-general.
With his stature and vast experience, we are sure that we have not seen the last of Khun Surin when he formally leaves Jakarta next week. There are plenty of jobs awaiting him, whether in Thailand or in international organizations. Given his strong commitment to the region as shown in the last five years, ASEAN would do well to give him a key advisory post to help with the community drive. Wherever he goes from here, we wish him well.
A big thank you and Chok Dee Khun Surin