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

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

Physically and culturally close to Western Europe, Lviv feels solidarity with compatriots in country’s east but says they need to decide own future More

West African Women Disproportionately Affected by Ebola

Women's roles in families and the community put them at greater risk for contracting the disease, officials say More

Video NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft will measure rates at which gases escape Martian atmosphere into space More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid