Surin lauded as 'hard act to follow'
Five-year term saw conflicts between members, but the ex-foreign minister helped open up Asean, and Myanmar
Former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan today ends his five-year term as the Asean chief with a long list of pointers for steering the grouping through myriad challenges and uncertainties.
Surin, who assumed the position in January 2008, has raised the international profile of Asean, with the Asean Charter in place as a legal entity.
At the farewell party recently at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta, he said he wanted the international community and Asean to increase dialogue and engagements.
"The more we can do that, the more benefits for Asean," he said.
Under his helm, Asean has had to deal with intra-Asean conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, the devastation and reconstruction that followed Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, as well as ways to sustain Asean centrality amid intense competition among its major powers. As a former foreign minister of Thailand, Surin also utilised his experience and made use of his network to broaden Asean's works and programmes, as well as international recognition.
One Asean diplomat, who asked not to be identified, observed that although the mandate of the Asean chief had expanded with the charter, it was still insufficient to accommodate his views and vision of Asean.
"That was why sometimes his actions raised eyebrows in Asean," the diplomat said.
"He will be a hard act to follow," said Prof Amitav Archaya of the American University in Washington DC, pointing out that Surin has helped to wean Asean away from a fixation with non-interference, which was damaging the grouping's reputation and its ability to act on critical challenges facing the region. When he was Thai foreign minister from 1997-2000, he advocated so-called flexible engagement, which later transformed into enhanced interaction, allowing Asean members to discuss sensitive issues and be more open.
Archaya, who has written extensively on Asean, said that Surin would be remembered for navigating the grouping through challenging times. He cited the US entry into the East Asia Summit, rising tensions over the South China Sea disputes and the opening up of Myanmar.
"He was the most active, open and globalised Asean secretary-general ever," he said.
A Jakarta Post editorial published on December 20 praised Surin's performance, stating unconditionally that of all the 12 secretaries-general who have come and gone since 1976, he has been the most effective.
A politician and a scholar by training, the former Thai foreign minister not only brought prestige to the office but also helped push Asean's rise and growth in prominence regionally and internationally, it said.
Over the past several weeks, he has made wide-ranging comments on sensitive issues such as the South China Sea dispute and Rohingya crises. He warned the maritime dispute could become "Asia's Palestine" if conflicting parties do not resolve it.
On the violence in Rakhine State, he pointed out that the persecuted Rohingya Muslims could be radicalised and the whole region destabilised.
Surin will be replaced next year by Le Luong Minh, a veteran Vietnamese diplomat who will serve from 2013-2018.
An official hand-over ceremony will be held on January 7 at the Asean headquarters in Jakarta. Before his Asean appointment, Minh was a deputy foreign minister and served as UN envoy for his country, including a stint as rotational UNSC president in 2008.
Beyond the uplifting of Asean's reputation, Surin has developed a close affinity with Asean-based civil society organisations (CSO).
He will be best remembered for his continued efforts to engage and consult them.
"He has been listening to the grassroots and our Asean civil society groups. He is very patient," Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the People's Empowerment Organisation in Bangkok, said.
He held discussions and attended workshops organised by various Asean-based civil society groups more than two dozen times during his tenure. Since the inauguration of an interface between the Asean leaders and representatives of civil society groups, this relationship has been on and off, depending on the Asean chair.
Yuyun Wayuningrum, senior adviser to the Human Rights Working Group in Jakarta, said Surin's work has established the face of the changing Asean.
"His commitment from the first day until he leaves remains the same, to make people the centre of Asean's development.
He leaves a legacy of sharing and shaping in Asean we should continue working on,'' she added.
Surin was not without his critics. Several persons interviewed, including those who worked under him and who were familiar with his performance, said Surin should have spent more time at the Secretariat and paid attention to administrative matters.
"Asean is an intergovernmental organisation and can be bureaucratic, so the secretary general needs to be attentive," commented one former Asean official, who asked not be identified.
As part of the effort to strengthen the Secretariat, Surin has proposed a series of recommendations to increase the efficiency and capacity of the nearly 80 international staffers.
Several dialogue countries have helped to train Asean officials in various capacity-building programs in the past.