This month, Surin Abdul Halim bin Ismail Pitsuwan of Thailand turns over the office of Asean secretary-general to Le Luong Minh of Vietnam. And already you can hear a loud chorus in media and diplomatic circles proclaiming that Surin is a tough act to follow. Pity the guy who succeeds him.
Well, I don’t. Le Luong Minh, you will soon find out, is no palooka. Like Surin, he is a veteran diplomat with a truckload of accomplishments. He may not have Surin’s star power but, hey, not even Michael Jordan won basketball games all by himself. What’s important is the quality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations team that is formed during Minh’s tenure. And that team will only be as good as the 10 member nations will make it.
And yet, having said all that, I have the uncanny feeling that the completion of Surin’s tenure as secretary general marks the end of an era. According to some Jakarta journalists, of the 12 secretaries general who have served Asean since 1976, Surin has been the most effective. Let me just add that there will never be another like him.
I first heard of him from then Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who had been much impressed by the articulateness of the young deputy foreign minister of Thailand, as well as his equanimity and good humor in the face of danger. They had been touring a newly reborn Cambodia on a rickety old plane that somehow managed not to crash in bad weather.
When he had become Thai foreign minister, I heard him at an Asean meeting expound on “constructive engagement” with Myanmar as an alternative to simply imposing sanctions on the country for human rights violations. When civil society shouted down “constructive engagement” as unacceptable, Ali quickly offered another term, “enhanced interaction.” Actually it meant the same thing: give Myanmar’s generals more time to reform and keep encouraging them to do so.
It took many years but Myanmar finally grew some appetite for reform, with Surin, now in the role of Asean secretary-general, doing much of the prodding. It helped that Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa withheld the reward for reform — chairmanship of Asean in 2014 — until there was enough reform to reward.
Although Surin always makes sense, some Asean members are not always comfortable with what he says. When Myanmar balked at regionalizing the issue of the persecution of the Rohingya, claiming that it was an internal matter, he shot back: “It may be an internal matter to you today, but tomorrow it will be ours.”
During the Asean summit last November, he reminded the region’s leaders of the presence of big powers that could make Asean forums the arena of their rivalry. He warned that if they dilly-dallied on the code of conduct in the South China Sea, the area could become “Asia’s Palestine.”
His boldest pronouncement has been on Asean decision-making, especially in cases where members fail to reach consensus, as happened at the ministerial meeting last July when no chairman’s statement was issued due to a deadlock on the issue of the South China Sea.
He has proposed that the secretary-general be mandated to play a more active role, to make decisions on behalf of Asean. He calls the proposal “The Asean Challenge.”
And a challenge it is! Call it Surin’s Challenge. In effect, he is asking Asean members to give up more of their national sovereignty than what they have already grudgingly yielded to have an Asean Charter. He is asking that Asean entrust its secretariat with supranational governance.
To most, if not all, Asean members this is the supreme sacrifice. But it may also be the price for Asean centrality. For the attainment of a real community. Will Asean ever be willing to pay that price?