Southeast Asian nations have endorsed Thailand's foreign minister as their candidate to be the next secretary-general of the United Nations. Jockeying for the post has begun more than two years before Secretary-General Kofi Annan's term is due to expire.

The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian nations has given unanimous support to Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai's bid to be U.N. Secretary General. ASEAN foreign ministers and U.N. ambassadors announced the choice after a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate.

By tradition, the post of secretary-general rotates every 10 years. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's second five years term is due to run out at the end of 2006. Mr. Annan is from Ghana. It is generally agreed that Asia's turn is next.

As he went into a meeting with Secretary-General Annan Wednesday, Mr. Surakiart said he hoped to win the backing of all 56 Asian nations. "We hope to get a consensus of Asian countries, but this is just the beginning. It's a long road ahead," he said.

Consensus is unlikely, however. Iran earlier put forward the name of President Mohammad Khatami. U.N. Undersecretary General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor, an Indian, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

The 46-year old Thai minister is U.S. educated. He earned a law degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, he said he sees the next few years as a period of urgent reform within the world body. "I think the question of U.N. reform is very important. Because the international political and strategic landscape in 1945 and present is very different, we have so many regional organizations working as building blocks toward multilateralism," he said. "We have countries working in partnership, regions working in partnership, so we have to find a linkage between the United Nations that has to be able to play the central role in multilateralism and with the regional organizations."

One possible drawback to Mr. Surakiart's candidacy is his poor command of French. It is considered an unofficial requirement that a secretary-general speak French as well as English. But in comments to reporters, Mr. Surakiart shrugged off that handicap.

He said, "I speak a little French, but I don't have time to practice".

Selecting a secretary-general is a lengthy process that is conducted largely behind closed doors. Nominations and lobbying usually take more than a year before private consultations begin among Security Council members.

The permanent five Council members traditionally take the lead in choosing from among the candidates. Once a nominee is chosen, the name is sent to the General Assembly, for approval.