PHNOM PENH — 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.