News / Asia

Departing ASEAN Chief's Valedictory: Opening in Burma

Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, with ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan after adoption of the regional bloc's Human Rights Declaration,  Phnom Penh, Nov. 18, 2012.
Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, with ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan after adoption of the regional bloc's Human Rights Declaration, Phnom Penh, Nov. 18, 2012.
Irwin Loy
When former Thai politician Surin Pitsuwan took over as the chief of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2008, his leadership was put to the test early on. In May of that year, Cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc on Burma, leveling townships and killing at least 138,000 people.

At the time, Burma was still an international pariah; even among the 10-member ASEAN bloc, there were questions about its place in the regional group.

Burma initially refused international relief efforts, but after an emergency ASEAN meeting, authorities relented and allowed medical personnel into the country.

Reflecting on his five-year term as it nears its end, Surin believes the intervention was a catalyst for the unexpected transformations that have unfolded in Burma over the last year.

“I think our engagement since then — not only with ASEAN but with the international community coming in with ASEAN — has raised a level of comfort, a level of confidence on the part of the leadership of Myanmar about the fact that the world is willing to help, to work with Myanmar, to support Myanmar,” he said. “[This] has certainly convinced Myanmar to open up and to change. That’s the most gratifying experience I have had in the past 5 years.”

With Surin at the helm, the group succeeded in quickly addressing a critical issue in the so-called “ASEAN way” — through consensus, not confrontation.

As his term wore on, Surin said, he wanted to push the bloc to become more open, more transparent and more relevant to the 600 million people that make up ASEAN’s diverse population.

“I think I could have done more, but I have to look back and be realistic,” he said, explaining that he believes he did played a role in increasing ASEAN’s public stature. “Some people, some governments, some officials, are probably not quite prepared to open up, to engage. A lot of them are saying, ‘yes, civil society, welcome.’ But they have to be our civil society. That’s difficult.”

According to Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political analyst at Kyoto University, while ASEAN’s response to Cyclone Nargis was a victory for Surin, the remainder of his term failed to live up to that early promise.

“Rehabilitation relief efforts on the part of ASEAN in Nargis could be his legacy,” said Pavin, arguing that it displayed Surin’s leadership in terms of being a bridge between Burma and the outside world. “Sadly, it’s the only and the last one.”

Pavin also described Surin, formerly a Thai foreign minister, as a natural politician in the shoes of an administrator, and thereby an individual who struggled to adjust to a more passive role as ASEAN’s figurehead leader.

“He’s basically overqualified for the job,” said Pavin, explaining that Surin hadn’t been well-received by ASEAN’s foreign ministers. “Because of that he often acts as if he was still a foreign minister [and] it brought up a lot of conflict.” When then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd floated a proposal for what he called an Asia-Pacific Community, for example, Surin initially responded positively in comments that many took to be supportive of the idea.

But ASEAN ministers wanted no part of it.

“My god, the next day ASEAN had to release a statement saying that what Surin said was in his personal capacity that does not reflect what ASEAN really thinks about APC,” said Pavin. “So basically that was a slap in the face of Surin. I mean, he continues to irritate a lot of foreign ministers. I think it's going to be a sad goodbye for Surin. It might be a happy goodbye on the part of a lot of ASEAN countries.”

Others, however, say Surin’s willingness to influence ASEAN from within has improved the bloc.

“He’s pushed the envelope of activism in a way that no previous secretary general has,” said Carlyle Thayer, an analyst of ASEAN affairs with the University of New South Wales.

Prodding the group in ways that may have been unheard of before, Surin, said Thayer, pushed to get ASEAN involved in Burma’s Rakhine State, where tensions between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya people are simmering.

Although Burma has so far rejected regional involvement, Thayer describes Surin as “spectacular” in his leadership role.

“He doesn't always win his battles, but he's made the secretary general a more independent office,” said Thayer. It’s been activist rather than interventionist, and it’s not happening as fast as outsiders may want, but to me that's what he's done.”

Surin’s replacement, Vietnamese diplomat Le Luong Minh, a former ambassador to the U.N., begins his five-year term January 1.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs