Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan dies aged 68

Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan dies aged 68

Surin Pitsuwan
File photo of Dr Surin Pitsuwan. (Photo: Twitter / ASEAN)

BANGKOK: Former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan died aged 68 on Thursday (Nov 30).

Dr Surin, who was also a former Thai foreign minister, died of an acute heart attack, Thailand's Democrat Party said.

He collapsed before giving a speech in Bangkok and was rushed to Ramkhamhaeng Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on Thursday afternoon. 

Dr Surin, the son of an Islamic teacher, was born in 1949 in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

He graduated in 1972 from Claremont College in California, before receiving a master's degree and a PhD from Harvard University in 1974 and 1982 respectively.

His political career began in 1986 when he was voted as a Member of Parliament for the first time, while also teaching at the Thammasat University. He would return to parliament eight times since then for the Democrat Party.

In the 1990s, he served as Thailand’s deputy foreign minister from 1992 to 1995 before becoming foreign minister under then prime minister Chuan Leekpai from 1997 until 2001. During Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 1999, he led Southeast Asia’s efforts to help restore law and order in the East Timor crisis.

After leaving the foreign ministry, Dr Surin was tipped as a possible successor to Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations, but was eventually not nominated by the Thai government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. 

It was later said that the reason for this decision was that the government led by the Thai Rak Thai Party did not want to endorse a candidate from the rival opposition Democrat Party.

After the military coup of 2006, the interim cabinet unanimously nominated Dr Surin as the Thai candidate for ASEAN secretary-general and he was confirmed for the position in July 2007 - a first for his country.

During his five-year tenure, he advocated the regional bloc to take a more activist role, moving away from the "non-interference in the internal affairs" of member states that has been often used to deflect human rights violations. This was most visible in his engagement with Myanmar, which gradually took steps towards reforms. 

Other key moments during Dr Surin’s time in office include the United States’ entry into the East Asia Summit as well as rising tensions over the South China Sea.

After the end of his tenure at ASEAN and his return to Thailand in 2013, he rejoined the Democrat Party and briefly participated in the anti-government protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister.

In recent years, he remained a much sought-after guest speaker, especially on ASEAN and foreign policy.

"It is a big loss to Thailand and the ASEAN community," the 10-country ASEAN said on its official Twitter account. "We convey our sincere condolences to his family."

Thailand's foreign ministry too tweeted its condolences to Dr Surin's family.

Dr Surin leaves behind his wife Alisa and three children.

Additional reporting by Saksith Saiyasombut

Source: CNA/ec/hs