The late Surin Pitsuwan, center, seen during an event at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Asean)

Surin Pitsuwan's Passion for Asean Serves as Inspiration for Bloc's Future

DECEMBER 06, 2018

Jakarta. Vivi Djong, a 25-year-old Indonesian from Pontianak, West Kalimantan, often travels to Malaysia with her elderly parents for medical checkups.

She is one of many people enjoying the relative ease of traveling in the region, courtesy of her status as a citizen of a member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Clarissa, a 24-year-old Jakarta resident, also cites visa exemption as one of the most important benefits of being an Asean citizen.

"Visa-free policy within Asean has definitely eased travel, which is important for business growth and traveling," Clarissa told the Jakarta Globe.

But the regional bloc has arguably done a lot more since its founding in 1967, and serves other purposes than merely granting visa exemptions for citizens of member states.

Vivi said Asean is important, not only to ensure good relations among countries in Southeast Asia, but for security in the region.

Though the organization has in one way or another enriched the lives of Southeast Asians like Vivi and Clarissa, few are familiar with its leadership.

Neither Vivi nor Clarissa, for example, knew of the late Surin Pitsuwan, who served as the bloc's secretary general from 2008 until 2012.

The Jakarta-headquartered Asean Secretariat and the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA) held a tribute forum on Monday to honor Surin, who is considered the most effective head of the organization yet.

"He tried bridging the divide where there were conflicts; he made tremendous contributions to peacebuilding in the region, and spoke passionately about Asean when and where it mattered," incumbent Asean Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi said.

Who Was Surin Pitsuwan?

Surin passed away in November last year, to the shock of those familiar with his work and career, especially in relation to Asean.

Prior to becoming secretary general, he served as the foreign minister of Thailand from 1997 to 2001.

In his speech on Monday, Lim said the late secretary general had played an instrumental role in strengthening regional integration and establishing ERIA as a regional think tank.

Under his leadership, Asean introduced peacekeeping missions to mediate insurgencies against the Indonesian government in East Timor and Aceh, preventing the conflicts from spilling over to other parts of the country.

Among those paying tribute to Surin during Monday's event was ERIA president Hidetoshi Nishimura, who highlighted the former secretary general's interaction with civil society organizations in the region during his tenure – something believed to have contributed to a stronger Asean community.

But one of the most important aspects of Surin's legacy is how Asean shifted under his leadership from a rigid implementation of the organization's principle of non-interference to what is known as "flexible engagement."

"Dr. Surin was the one who introduced the concept of flexible engagement, meaning that we're not really interfering, but we can engage; we can be talking with each other about problems that will affect our neighbors, or our neighbors' problem that will affect us," said Supachai Panitchpakdi, former director general of the World Trade Organization and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

This type of engagement was most evident perhaps when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008. The disaster necessitated Asean to step in, prompting Surin to work with Asean foreign ministers, according to Nishimura, to convince the government of Myanmar to allow international humanitarian aid workers to help those affected by the disaster.

"Dr. Surin Pitsuwan … had a vision to transform this regional organization from its minimalist beginnings to its true potential as an Asean community that is people-oriented, people-driven and people-centered," said Dewi Anwar, vice chairwoman of the Habibie Center, a Jakarta-based think tank.

Delia Albert, a former Philippine foreign minister, said Surin had worked incessantly to build the global profile of Southeast Asia during his term and afterwards.

Full Ownership

Surin wrote an essay detailing his vision for the organization's future in an ERIA publication that formed part of Asean's 50th anniversary celebration in October last year.

In the essay titled "Asean After 50 and Beyond: A Personal Perspective," he mentioned the urgent need for member states to maintain solidarity in dealing with external partners and to improve people's attitudes towards the bloc.

"To truly succeed as it moves into its second half-century, Asean will require the full ownership and active participation and meaningful contributions of its peoples," Albert said in her speech, echoing a sentiment from Surin's essay.

Vivi confessed to knowing very little about Asean and expressed a desire to see more interesting media coverage of the bloc.

"I don't think many people lack knowledge of Asean. Though I can't recall hearing much about Asean this year," she said.

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, the president director of state-run Antara News, described Surin as a man who had "transcended his Thai nationality to become an Asean citizen."

Surin's passion for Asean is perhaps the inspiration that must be nurtured to advance the regional bloc in the future.

"Asean is not quite in the consciousness of the people … the focus of Asean in the next few years should be to bring the community of people together," Albert said.