Remembering Surin Pitsuwan: Consummate Diplomat, Accomplished Statesman, and Friend
December 13, 2017
On Nov. 30, 2017, Thailand and Southeast Asia lost a diplomat of great stature, charm, and eloquence when Dr. Surin Pitsuwan suddenly died due to a heart attack at the age of 68.
I first learned of Surin almost four decades ago when I lived and worked in Thailand. Surin was a political science professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but he was also a columnist for The Nation, one of Thailand’s major English-language newspapers. Although I didn’t know Surin when I lived in Thailand, I learned a lot from him through his writings. Surin often wrote about the conflict in southern Thailand where I eventually lived for one year in 1980. Surin’s Ph.D. dissertation from Harvard, titled “Islam and Malay Nationalism: A Case Study of the Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand,” is considered a seminal work on that decades-long conflict.
But Surin also wrote about Thai politics in general. Thailand was then ruled by an authoritarian government strongly backed by the military, but he was well ahead of his time writing about Thailand’s potential to become a democratic state. In the mid-1980s, Surin was elected to parliament representing his home province in the South, Nakhon Sri Thammarat. He was subsequently reelected seven consecutive terms as a member of the Democrat Party. But more importantly, Surin was a “small d” democrat—always tolerant of diverse views and working tirelessly toward the collective good.
I first met Surin in October 1997 at a small dinner hosted by then Thai ambassador to the United States, Nitya Pibulsonggram, a few months after the Asian financial crisis started in Thailand. Surin was then his country’s foreign minister. When we were introduced and Surin was told I worked for The Asia Foundation, his eyes widened and he said how much he benefitted from the Congressional Fellowship he received under the Foundation’s auspices in 1983-84.
But Surin also took interest in learning about my time in Thailand, particularly in Songkhla, as well as my work with the Foundation. Surin participated in a number of international relations programs the Foundation organized, but we also socialized. One time in San Francisco 15 years ago, Surin asked me to go with him to listen to jazz music in Oakland. I told Surin my sons, Matthew and Christopher, were with me and said I couldn’t. Surin, without missing a beat, said “well how about I meet your kids.” We wound up having dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe on Fisherman’s Wharf and he talked with my sons about all kinds of subjects—what sports they played, music they listened to, books they were reading. Surin’s conversation with my sons was emblematic of how he inspired young people, whether they lived in Thailand, ASEAN, the U.S., or elsewhere. This was one attribute that made Surin such an ardent and effective champion of ASEAN, where he served as secretary-general from 2008 to 2012.
The last time I spoke extensively with Surin was on Oct. 13, 2016, when we attended a conference at Ditchley House in Oxfordshire. When we met there, King Bhumipol, Thailand’s long-standing monarch for 70 years had just died. We spoke about a variety of things—how the Thai people must be feeling after King Bhumipol’s death, whether Trump had a chance in winning the U.S. presidential election, Myanmar, U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, and our families. I will miss our conversations.
The ancient Egyptians believed that a person dies twice—the first time when a person physically expires and the other when a person’s name is uttered for the very last time. Although Surin is no longer of this world, his name will live on for many, many more years to come; a great testament to a life well lived.
Surin Pitsuwan was a consummate diplomat, accomplished statesman, humanitarian, and one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve ever heard, who captivated audiences whenever he spoke. But most of all, Surin was a good friend—to me, my colleagues past and present, the United States, ASEAN, and to many the world over. I wish him peace in the hereafter.
John J. Brandon is senior director for The Asia Foundation’s International Relations programs in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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