At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.
One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.
But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.
The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”
On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.
But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”
Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.
Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.
As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist