It was another early morning in a remote village 10 kilometres from the centre of Nakhon Si Thammarat. The young Surin Pitsuwan, with a backpack over his shoulders, grabbed his old bicycle for the long ride to school. His grandmother had got a good deal on the old second-hand — or third- or fourth-hand — bike at 350 baht. “Now people can spend 150,000 baht on a bicycle. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a choice. For me, it was a necessity,” said the former ASEAN secretary-general, recalling a childhood tinged with struggles and poverty.
Mr Surin insists that despite his background, his achievements have been no coincidence. “Most people look at the success at the top of one’s career without appreciating how much he or she had to sacrifice,” he said.
He has proved that with education, dedication and passion, anything is possible. The schoolboy from the margins of society became an academic, politician, diplomat and chair of international humanitarian organisations, leading the way for his country. To promote education, peace and humanity, the self-made man continues to meet people and deliver his message to the world in order to “pay back” to society.
Elite+ spoke with him one fine afternoon, letting him share his successes and concerns for the future of the global community.
- What are your current roles and responsibilities?
I still consider myself a teacher, because I began my career as an academic, teaching at Thammasat University. The only difference is the classroom is bigger. There are more students and noise, because I have to talk to a lot people in different professions, in different parts of the world. But the message is the same: this is a very little blue planet. Every human being will have to ask how we are going to live in 2050 when there will be 9.4 billion people living together. We have to take care of this planet and make sure that whatever international system we establish brings about fairness and equality among the people of the world.
The United Nations last September came up
with 17 sustainable development goals, or SDGs. They’re talking about sustainability and depletion of resources. The world is coming to realise that there are limits to human consumption. Mahatma Gandhi said the world had enough for every need, but not enough for every greed. The world is coming up with strategies and goals to make sure that 15 years from now we will have better distribution of wealth, a better way of taking care of the environment and managing the fruits of development. You can’t have a sustainable world when there are poor people with no land to live on. We have to solve the problem of abject and absolute poverty in the world. Two billion people out of 7.3 still go to bed hungry every day. So I go out to address this issue.
Most of my engagements outside the country are on humanitarian issues. In Geneva, I belong to a group called the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian
Dialogue. In the beginning, it was part of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Now they separated it and have the Henri Dunant Centre mediate conflicts in Tunisia, Southern Sudan, the Philippines, Nigeria, in many places.
I also chair the international advisory board of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or IDEA, in Stockholm, Sweden, where about 30 countries gather and promote democracy. I’m also a visiting professor and international adviser at GRIPS, the Graduate Institute for Policy adviser, Tokyo, and professor emeritus at Thammasat University. Mostly working for humanity, but of course, there are some business responsibilities; I’m chair of Amata Corporation Thailand and Vietnam.
- Why are so many of your passions related to humanitarian issues?
Because I came from the margins of society in a village far away from modernity, a foothill of Nakhon Si Thammarat. I’ve seen poverty, lack of opportunity,inequity and injustice. And I came this far in life because of education. I’ve seen the extremes. One day I could be having lunch with princes and kings in the Middle East or European royalty. These are the elites. But the next day I could be barefoot in my own village. So I think from privilege you have a responsibility to turn around and pay back, sharing what you have experienced and encouraging [people] along.
Education is the key to open up the whole world, the fascination of the world. I’ve heard parents and teachers tell their children to see me as a role model, an exceptional case. I said no, don’t make me an exception. I’m just like you, I came from the bottom, deeper than all of you. I didn’t have electricity when I grew up. I walked, I biked to school. That’s how I got an education. Therefore if you try hard enough, you can succeed.
I didn’t work to make money; I worked so that more people would be able to benefit. Every time I fly to Nakhon Si Thammarat, I feel good because I brought the airport here 20 years ago.
I didn’t pay for it but was instrumental in bringing that money. Education, humanitarian work, international diplomacy, democracy and human rights are my passions. These are the ingredients for a better society, whether Thai society or the regional ASEAN community or internationally.
- What were your significant achievements during your time as ASEAN secretary-general?
I was the first secretary-general after the charter was signed so I had to be instrumental in setting up the mechanisms according to the charter, including the secretariat itself in Jakarta. Recruiting more people, setting up the Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
Before me, ASEAN was a very close-knit entity and I think I’ve made ASEAN better known in the world because of my background as a foreign minister and MP. Being an MP, you have to communicate with people, building consensus, explaining your vision and activities. So I became the first secretary-general with a political background. Politics can make a contribution if you do it right.
In 2011 I was behind the scenes when Thailand and Cambodia recalled their ambassadors. There was tension over Preah Vihear. As secretary-general of ASEAN, I mediated with Mr Hun Sen and we agreed that he and Mr Abhisit must meet. And we agreed that the ambassadors must be [reinstated]. I called the Bangkok Post and The Nation at 10pm and they said the papers were already put to bed. As the result, the front page of the two newspapers was covered with an extra headline: Abhisit and Hun Sen will meet soon. That’s my job. You might have heard of East Timor, Myanmar and Aceh; I got involved in these humanitarian reconciliations.
- What does ASEAN need most at the moment?
I think ASEAN needs unity. ASEAN needs a vision. ASEAN needs leadership. In the past, ASEAN had towering figures like Suharto, Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew and General Prem Tinsulanonda. I don’t think that ASEAN has those towering figures to lead it any more. We must produce good leaders, inspiring and visionary leaders. This is exactly what ASEAN is lacking.
- How would you address that?
Well, I think one way of producing good leaders is to involve people. To make sure that people understand the need for good leaders. So you engage in a more democratic process. And you choose people to represent the dreams and aspirations for your country, for your own children into the future. So human rights, democracy, equality, freedom, all these things are
important, the rule of law in the landscape of ASEAN.
- In a perfect world, how would you see ASEAN?
ASEAN has to be more open for every stakeholder, for the 620 million people, for civilian society, for business, for academics, for the media. I think ASEAN has to be open to all people of ASEAN, that everyone looks up to and can count on as an instrument, an institution that will bring them a better quality of life.
- China, now a superpower, is engaged in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. How will this impact ASEAN?
As a part of the centre of growth in the world economic landscape, ASEAN has become more important for the global community than 25 years ago. Every power in the world is interested in ASEAN. Every external player would like to be a part of this Pacific region. ASEAN at the beginning, before China became powerful, took this as an issue that needs to be resolved collectively.
My observation is there are tensions and rivalry among the superpower countries. But the rivalry plays itself out in ASEAN because there are no other platforms. All ASEAN countries, not only the four claimants, have to feel the tension over the islands of the South China Sea.
How to solve it? It will take restraint and prudence on both sides because we certainly don’t want violence and confrontation. All of us are integrated. All of us need the waterways of the South China Sea. But without the code of conduct we’re working on, we must learn to accommodate each other and restrain our behaviour to avoid misunderstandings. Deng Xiaoping once said: “The South China Sea, our generation may not have the wisdom and capacity to resolve it. We must be prepared to leave this issue for the future generation. Now we should live and benefit from this body of water together.” Perhaps his advice is correct and relevant to us now.
- What can ASEAN learn from Brexit?
What happened with Brexit was the people of Britain felt a loss of control of their own country and that the decisions were being made by others. The way the European Union works is that they transfer [some] decision-making powers to Brussels, the capital of Europe. Different nationalities, however, have different history and identity. The British consider themselves an island and not part of mainland Europe. In other words, they feel British exceptionalism. Nevertheless, after 43 years in the union they have to put up with all these decisions being made by Europeans — migration, jobs, health care or even economic issues. They feel they’ve lost their British identity.
ASEAN isn’t using this model. I’ve always said the EU is our inspiration but not our model, because the background of ASEAN and the structure of the European Union are different. ASEAN members will maintain their identity. You don’t transfer the sovereignty or decision-making power to Jakarta. Each capital remains in full control. There is no decision made in ASEAN that has to be translated for registration in Bangkok. ASEAN can’t do that because of the diversity among us.
ASEAN, however, has to take into consideration that the main reason for Brexit was a sense of losing control. Our economic progress has to be developed in such a way that people benefit as equally as possible. They must not feel left out. That will take a bit of effort by all of us — the leaders, media, academic institutes and so on — ensuring that people feel as much part of ASEAN as they do Thai, Cambodian, Filipino. We’re ASEAN, all 10 of us.
- Now that the referendum results have been announced, what are you expecting for Thailand in the future?
I hope this is the beginning of a new era, of reconciliation, respect and inclusivity. Do you know that only 33% of eligible voters voted “yes”? The other 66% either didn’t come out to vote, rejected the draft or declared the ballot invalid. However, the number of “yes” votes, which represented 61% of votes cast, was more than enough to legitimise the draft constitution.
What does it mean? I think the “yes” votes will have to exercise power from now on with tremendous care.
It’s interesting that the opposition, whether new political parties, Pheu Thai or the Democrats, all came out and said they would abide by the decision of the people. That’s something new in Thailand. When the opposition makes such concessions, I expect to see the “yes” votes taking the same moral high ground. During the past two years, we haven’t reached any pragmatic reconciliation. Let’s hope that this is a new beginning for inclusive politics, allowing every social segment to contribute to the national administration.
- US citizens are having a polarising presidential election, the UK voted to leave the EU, terrorism is threatening people in Europe — it seems the world faces much social unrest. Will this affect ASEAN?
Yes, because ASEAN is an open territory, with 75% out of our trade with the global community. Small and interconnected, the world is a village where any problem can spill over to other places. A book by Tom Friedman describes the world as Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Our planet is flat since borders mean less and less. Everything that happens in the world, it absolutely affects us. As a poem by John Donne states: “No man is an island... Any man’s death diminishes me/ Because I am involved in mankind / And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls/ it tolls for thee.”
- How can we protect ourselves, be self sufficient and stay involved?
Build our own capacity. Do something with the education system. Change our mindset. We’re very comfortable, used to and proud of what we have. Companies can’t find Thais willing to go out and serve their companies around the world. Positions in the UN and international agencies, the quota for Thailand has never been filled because we don’t want to go out. Thai people are capable, but unfortunately not willing to leave this comfort zone. You can’t live in a world of globalisation and fear of competition. The comfort zone has to be expanded.