Surin Pitsuwan: Memories of a true comrade in arms

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Crisis side by side on ‘Team Thailand’, but his greatest legacy is the Asean Dream.

People like Surin Pitsuwan, who combine intellectual capability with eloquence and

political perceptiveness, do not need eulogies and platitudes on
their deaths for us to embrace them in our memories. Their rich lives
are in themselves testimony to their greatness, leaving an indelible
mark on our generation. When I first met Surin, through Akorn
Hoontrakul’s introduction at his Imperial Hotel in the early 1980s,
he was already a well-known young lecturer at Thammasat University
and a prolific Bangkok Post columnist. We were supposed to be
discussing monetary measures (I was still at the Bank of Thailand)
for one of his articles but we ended up debating the ever-intriguing
Thai political scene. We gradually came to learn of each other’s
political ideology and became friends and “comrades-in-arms” for
the last four decades. Our paths crossed again in 1986 when we both
entered Parliament under the Democrat Party banner. Surin was already
carving a reputation as an eloquent speaker on international affairs.
From time to time we would find ourselves on similar conference
circuits in Asia making friends with those rising stars of the region
whom we would go on to encounter in our political careers.An
unbeatable team Some of those connections were made during Thailand’s
traumatic experience of the 1997-’98 financial crisis. As foreign
minister at the time, Surin had a significant role in international
talks to relieve Thailand’s obligations, the most urgent duty being
to cancel the purchase of a squadron of F-14 aircraft which the US
duly sanctioned without penalty. Besides the minimal financial
support from the International Monetary Fund, Thailand had to solicit
further assistance (in trade and finance) from elsewhere, notably
China and Japan. The Foreign Ministry under Surin always gave a
lending hand wherever necessary. One of Surin’s proudest
achievements was arranging a meeting between Prime Minister Chuan
Leekpai and President Bill Clinton in Washington. Clinton said his
appreciated the Chuan administration’s efforts to help free
Thailand from the crisis’ stranglehold.

Our cooperation in
what Surin called “Team Thailand”, with him at the helm of the
Foreign Ministry and me at Commerce, was exemplary through the crisis
period and thereafter. For any nation to be successful in the global
arena, it is necessary to harmonise and unify the diverse ministerial
and related interests into a single strategy platform. With “Team
Thailand” we could jointly penetrate markets in various parts of
the world and help drive recovery from the 1997-’98 crisis with
well-coordinated international economic policy. The effort even
managed to weather strong headwinds from the dotcom crisis at the
turn of the century. In the meantime Surin was also busy on different
fronts. He was helping the UN negotiate peace during the Aceh
conflict in Indonesia, arranging for Japan’s financial support for
Asean peacekeeping forces in East Timor, and leading the Thai Haj
pilgrimage twice to Saudi Arabia. When we started working on a
cooperation framework between Asean and the European Union, Surin and
I took the proposal to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore who
agreed on the ASEM (Asia Europe meeting) framework and was pleased to
have Thailand host the first ASEM meeting in Bangkok in 1996.WTO
triumph When in 1999 I was advised by member countries of the World
Trade Organisation to apply to head the organisation, Prime Minister
Chuan gave me his blessing. But the WTO campaign turned out to be
unnecessarily acrimonious. While I was leading the race, the Clinton
administration announced its outright objection to my candidature
without giving any explanation. But the group of countries that
supported Thailand would not give up the fight, and neither would the
Thai, spearheaded by Surin, then deputy foreign minister MR
Sukhumbhand Paribatra and our colleagues in the Foreign and Commerce
ministries. Sukhumbhand made several trips abroad to convey our
messages and Surin himself was involved in talks with our supporters
spread across the world. In one major Berlin meeting with EU foreign
ministers, Surin came close to clinching the full support of the EU
after daylong negotiations, only to be torpedoed by one member
country at the last minute. Leon Brittan expressed his annoyance to
us about the absence of EU solidarity on the matter. With vocal
support from the Thai public and a swathe of WTO member countries, we
managed to clinch an unprecedented arrangement. From the messy
negotiations emerged one proud moment for Surin, when US Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright phoned him from her aircraft while on a
peace mission to divided Yugoslavia. US state secretaries do not
pick up the phone easily, but Albright had to convey the message to
Surin that the White House would agree to sharing the term of WTO
appointment. His historic achievement But Surin’s most remarkable
and historic achievement will remain the legacy he left in raising
the global profile of Asean. He turned the organisation into a
“networked secretariat”, building up connections for Asean
throughout the world. I used to joke with Surin that during his time
as Asean secretary-general, I ran into him more often further afield
than in the Asean region. Smiling, he would point to the clouds and
say, “My office is in the sky.” While most regional integration
efforts around the world now seem to be in a shambles, Surin was
successful in single-handedly conveying the Asean message to the
world that diversity could also be a real source of strength for a
regional grouping. Visiting US secretary of state Hillary Clinton
once asked Surin how serious he was about the implementation of the
Asean Charter with its three pillars of political-security, economic
and socio-political community. Surin answered he was dead serious and
went on to give America’s top diplomat an extended explanation
comparing the Asean Charter to the US Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence. Obviously impressed, Clinton quipped
“Yes, professor” as Surin ended his exposition. During Surin’s
time at the Secretariat, the Economic Research Institute for Asean
and East Asia (ERIA) was established with support from the Japanese
government to strengthen the research backbone of Asean. I was
flattered when ERIA presented me with its first Asia Cosmopolitan
Award in 2012 in recognition of contributions to the development of a
peaceful and stable East Asia community. We both believed in Asean
centrality to self-determine our own destiny and therefore needed the
grouping to be as united as the tied sheaf of paddy stalks in our
logo. ERIA President Hidetoshi Nishimura said this on the role of
Surin: “As a true leader of Asean, even well after his term as
secretary-general ended, he gave himself fully to promoting the dream
of a peaceful and prosperous region where every person could be a
member of a caring and sharing community, a people-oriented Asean. He
was also a strong believer in Asean centrality and the need for the
region to promote intra-regional trade.”A Noah for the regional ark
We both also believed in an inclusive Asean wherein every member
must be taken on board the regional ark. While I worked from the
early 1990s to establish the Greater Mekong Subregion project to
promote the connectivities between the Mekong countries, Surin made
the strongest effort to implement the charter for Asean integration
which aims at narrowing the development gap through jointly
undertaking to support Mekong countries through human resource
development initiatives. His strongly urged Asean members to move
closer through a labour mobility agreement in eight sectors, by using
English as a common language and by learning to speak each other’s
languages. He was also convinced that Thailand required deep
educational reform to prepare ourselves for the Asean Economic
Community, and also championed government incentives for Thai
businesses to move out into the wider Asean region. We all feel a
massive sense of loss at the sudden passing of Surin. But we can keep
his legacy alive by realising the Asean dreams that Surin cherished
and did so much to cultivate. I recall a Davos World Economic Forum
meeting in which Surin joined WEF chairman Klaus Schwab and Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong to discuss the various trouble-plagued
regions preoccupying the minds of world leaders. Surin concluded that
talk by reaffirming the viability of Asean and assuring the World
Forum that “with Asean, you have one region less to worry
about”.Supachai Panitchpakdi is a former commerce minister, finance
minister and deputy prime minister who also served as
director-general of the World Trade Organisation and as
secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development.