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The tragedy of Thailand's Surin Pitsuwan - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

 Much has been and more will be said of Dr Surin Pitsuwan's sudden and unexpected passing due to heart failure on Nov 30, at age 68, just when he appeared to be going from strength to strength after his stint in 2008-12 as Asean secretary-general. Many will also say that among the 13 heads of Asean in its 50-year history, Surin was the most effective and formidable. Indeed, he managed to speak for and champion Asean's causes and roles in Asia and the wider world even long after he left the job. No secretary-general of Asean is likely to come anywhere near the level of his eloquence, charm and charisma, the presence and confidence that his tall frame and good looks yielded. But Asean was second best for Surin. He was better than what he ended up with, unable to find professional landings commensurate with what he could bring to the job.


His rise to greatness is well-known. Surin was a native son opf Thailand from the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, a Thai-Muslim from humble origins who climbed one ladder after another through brilliance and hard work. He eventually earned a PhD at Harvard at a time when American academia was not so interested in Southeast Asia after the United States had lost the war in South Vietnam. His dissertation on "Islam and Malay Nationalism" rings true today as an ethno-nationalist framework to analyse and accommodate the Malay-Muslim insurgency in Thailand's deep South. Later, Surin went on to a university career and a public intellectual role in journalism. And then he was repeatedly elected MP in his province, starting in 1986, always with the Democrats.