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Former ASEAN secretary-general, Thai foreign minister dead at 68

Surin Pitsuwan, then secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), speaks during a lecture in Kuala Lumpur on 30 October 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Prominent Thai and international figures and organisations have expressed condolences and paid tribute to former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, who died on Thursday at 68 after a sudden heart attack.

Surin, a former foreign minister for Thailand, passed away at Ramkhamhaeng Hospital in Bangkok. The funeral will be held at Tha It Mosque in Nonthaburi’s Pak Kret district on Friday.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said, “I would like to offer condolences for the loss of an important figure.”

His sentiments were echoed by National Legislative Assembly chairman Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, who said: “Surin was a valuable man in this world and his loss is very sad.”

Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa called Surin an eloquent and effective diplomat, saying: “He was instrumental in driving the ASEAN community.”

“The ASEAN family of nations are deeply saddened by the passing of Khun Surin Pitsuwan.”

Zeti Akhtar Aziz, former governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, and a close friend of Surin, said, “That’s really sad news, a great loss for the ASEAN community. Such a towering personality, he will be missed.”

Meanwhile, the Thai Foreign Ministry expressed their condolences to Surin’s family.

“Surin played a key role in conducting and guiding Thailand’s foreign policy,” said Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. “He contributed greatly to the advancement and interests of ASEAN as well as the promotion of ASEAN on the international stage.”

US ambassador Glyn T. Davies said: “Surin was a monumental figure — a statesman, educator, leader and visionary. He made many contributions to the stability and prosperity of Thailand and the region throughout his distinguished career, most prominently through his service as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later as secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.”

Democrat leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is on a trip to China, sent a Line message, saying he was shocked and saddened by news of the death of Surin, a former Democrat MP.

“This is the loss of a valuable figure, not just for the Democrat Party, but also for the country and the world community,” Abhisit wrote. “He was full of knowledge and ability and held a firm idealism, which is difficult to find in the political sphere these days.”

Surakiart Sathirathai, a former foreign minister under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, said Surin was a high-quality politician, with whom he had always consulted when he held the ministerial position for four years, adding even though he left the ASEAN secretary-general post, he remained active in supporting democracy.

Former prime minister and former Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai said it was sad to lose this great politician prematurely. Surin had been dedicated to serving as a voice of the people and he “performed the task superbly.”

Surin, who was president of the Future Innovative Thailand Institute, was born in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. His father was an Islamic teacher.

He studied for a bachelor’s degree in politics at Thammasat University for two years before moving to the United States, where he graduated from Claremont College in California in political science in 1972.

He then earned a master’s degree in political science from Harvard University and a doctorate in political science and Middle Eastern studies from the same university.

Surin turned to a political career in 1986, when he was elected as a Democrat Party MP for Nakhon Si Thammarat, a position he had held through seven elections.

He served as secretary to Chuan Leekpai, then as House speaker, between 1986 and 1988.

He was made deputy foreign minister from 1992-95 and assumed the position of foreign minister in 1997, a post he held for four years.

On 1 January 2008 he was given the role of ASEAN secretary-general. He served in that position for five years before rejoining the Democrat Party.

Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said Surin had sweeping vision, particularly in international affairs.

Chaiyan said he was aware that Surin had been about to contest the Bangkok governor election.

If Surin had been elected, he would have been a capable governor as the experience he gained from his ASEAN work could have been applied to administering City Hall, he said.

Surin was a moderate Muslim with progressive views, Chaiyan said. “If the Democrats wanted to change to have a new leader under an era of reconciliation, Surin would have been an appropriate choice,” he said.

Jaran Maluleem, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, said Surin was an idol for Muslims and he was loved by the people of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Surin was granted the title “Tan Sri,” the highest given by Malaysia to civilians, Jaran said.

This story was originally published by the Bangkok Post here