Dr Surin Pitsuwan

Doctor of Laws

14 July 2008 - Orator: Professor Amitav Acharya

Mr Vice-Chancellor, Surin Pitsuwan

Dr Surin Pitsuwan is one of the most well-known and highly respected voices of emerging Asia.

Born in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, whose very name (Nagara Sri Dharmaraja in Sanskrit) harks back to a golden era of maritime voyages that linked Southeast Asia with the outside world, including Japan, China, India, and the Arab world, young Surin Pitsuwan was educated at Thammasat University, Claremont Men’s College and Harvard University, where he earned a master and a PhD. His Harvard education was funded by the Winston S. Churchill Association and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. Churchill, as some of the audience may know, was the longtime chancellor of the University of Bristol, both before, during and after he was Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Surin Pitsuwan was a Political Science lecturer at Thammasat University from 1978 before joining politics. He was first elected to the Thai Parliament from his home town, Nakhon Si Thammarat, in 1986. He was to be returned to the Thai Parliament eight times. He became the Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister of Thailand from 1992-1995 and served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1992-2001. As Foreign Minister, he successfully mobilized international support for rescuing Thailand from the severe economic crisis of 1997. He also served as Chair of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and the Chair of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1999-2000. In September 1999, while serving as ASEAN Chair, he led the efforts to get Southeast Asian governments, with the support of the United Nations and the international community, to help restore law and order in East Timor.

As a political leader, Surin Pitsuwan has championed the values of democracy and human rights, and innovative solutions to the region’s complex, transnational problems. In 1998, soon after taking over as the foreign minister of Thailand, he challenged ASEAN to look beyond its traditional notion of non-intervention. He came up with the idea of “flexible engagement,” a term that has since become a permanent entry in the lexicon of Asian diplomacy. The idea of flexible engagement was to motivate ASEAN not to shy away from commenting and acting collectively on problems that may arise from within the boundaries of one nation-state, but which may threaten regional and international stability and prosperity. Although some of his colleagues in ASEAN then expressed reservations about such a radical notion, it is a testimony to the deep respect that Dr Surin enjoys in the regional community that he was enthusiastically endorsed by all ASEAN members as the new secretary-general of ASEAN when it was Thailand’s turn to fill the position.

Between the time he was Thai Foreign Minister and his appointment to be the ASEAN Secretary-General, Dr Surin went around the world speaking for Asia, not in the tone of a defensive exceptionalist, like some of the proponents of the “Asian Values” School, but as a cosmopolitan regionalist, subscribing to the universal values of democracy, sustainable development and human security.

During this time, he served in important international bodies, including as a member of the UN Commission on Human Security, chaired by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata of Japan. The commission’s report, Human Security Now, was to become the bible of those who believe in security for the people, rather than security for the state alone. He was also a member of the Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, a Member of the International Advisory Board of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Member of the International Advisory Board of the International Crisis Group (ICG) and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Asia Foundation. Additionally, he was an adviser to the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention, which came up with the idea of “Responsibility to Protect”, adopted by the UN in 2005.

Dr Surin was one of the Asian contenders to be the next UN Secretary-General of the UN, the post which finally went to South Korean Ban Ki Moon. But it followed that Dr Surin was appointed to be the Secretary General of ASEAN from 2008 to 2013. ASEAN is Asia’s preeminent regional intergovernmental organization. ASEAN and its extensions, such as ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three, East Asia Summit and Asia-Europe Meeting, bring together the world’s most powerful nations, including the US, China, India, Japan, the European Union, and Russia. These countries hold annual ministerial or summit level meetings with ASEAN.

Dr Surin has taken over as ASEAN Secretary-General at a time of momentous changes in the regional and global arena. The rising economic power of Asia, led by Japan, China, and lately India, is fundamentally transforming not only the way the global economy works, but also the political and strategic architecture of world politics. ASEAN is a club of small nations with a unique leadership role in navigating the region’s political and strategic currents. As Secretary-General, it is Dr Surin’s job to maintain ASEAN’s position as a cohesive regional community, infuse it with new ideas and approaches to help tackle complex challenges, and uphold its image as the driver of a new brand of cosmopolitan regionalism.

A Muslim who is widely praised for his efforts to promote a dialogue of civilizations, Dr Surin is precisely the kind of individual that the international community needs at a time when it is seeking ways of dealing with extremism and associated forms of insecurity. In this respect, Dr Surin leads not just with words, but also with deed. For example, he has nurtured closely a school founded sixty six years ago by his grandfather in his home province which has become a model for providing quality integrated education to Muslim students, thereby helping to bridge the gap between Islam and modernity.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, so far, I have described not one, but three Surin Pitsuwans, all rolled into one. First, there is Surin the academician, blessed with a powerful intellect, who has attained the highest level of education in both the east and the west, and who is a man of ideas that are often ahead of their time.

Then there is Surin the people’s man, and here I am deliberately not using the term politician, a man from the ivory tower of Harvard who has his feet firmly on the ground in the poorest and remotest parts of Thailand, and who, unlike leaders of some Asian countries, has actually contested and won many elections conducted freely and fairly

And last but not the least, there is Surin the statesman, from being foreign minister of a crisis-stricken nation desperately mobilizing international help, to being the secretary-general of the developing world’s most successful regional organization, a member and adviser to several of the world’s brain trusts.

The University of Bristol recognizes the substantial accomplishments of Surin the academician, Surin the people’s man and Surin the statesman. It recognizes his potential as ASEAN Secretary General to make a further significant contribution to the well-being of Southeast Asia and the international community.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dr Surin Pitsuwan as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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