‘Nargis was a turning point’

ASEAN Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan on why Myanmar is reforming, ASEAN’s role and his concerns about those ‘bent on exploiting’ Myanmar resources

By Roger Mitton
Volume 31, No. 614
February 13 - 19, 2012

ASEAN Secretary General Dr Surin Pitsuwan, who will visit Myanmar from February 19 to 22.
Pic: AFP

THIS year, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, 62, the former foreign minister of Thailand, completes his five-year term as ASEAN secretary general. Articulate and Harvard-educated, Dr Surin has adopted a higher profile than most of his predecessors. Never afraid to voice an opinion – and usually a trenchant one – he has often irked some of the region’s more cautious and reserved leaders.

When he was Thai foreign minister, he famously endorsed the notion of “constructive intervention” if there were crises in ASEAN member states. Given that the association espoused a strict credo of non-interference in each other’s affairs, this view raised hackles across the region.

Over the past four years in his ASEAN job, however, Dr Surin has withdrawn the verbal fangs and become rather more sober in his pronunciamentos. He has, in short, become a true ASEAN man – albeit an astonishingly dynamic one, who has tirelessly travelled the region, and the world, extolling the endeavours and virtues of the association.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was in rallying the region and the world to set aside previous convictions and work together in the relief effort after the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008. As Surin said: “Four million people were affected. 140,000 perished. It was an enormous humanitarian task for all of us.” But he was at the heart of it – and he helped convince the then-isolationist Myanmar military regime to allow the outside world to come in and contribute to the recovery.

Regional correspondent Roger Mitton interviewed Dr Surin in Bangkok as he was preparing to visit Myanmar this week, from February 19-22.

During his visit, Dr Surin will meet President U Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw, as well as the foreign minister and other senior figures, before travelling to Yangon and the delta region. He hopes also to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Why are you going to Myanmar?

I’ve been invited by the foreign minister to offer whatever help we can as Myanmar prepares to assume the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. We do this for all member states, but for Myanmar it is rather special because it has been specifically assigned the chair two years hence. Since that decision was taken, the pace and depth of reforms in Myanmar have accelerated extremely fast. I want to see them for myself.

Do the reforms vindicate the decision to admit Myanmar into ASEAN in 1997?

Myanmar has always been consistent about its own roadmap and ASEAN membership has given them more confidence to implement it. So now they are readying themselves to open up and reconnect with the region using the ASEAN framework. Sometimes we have encouraged them to speed up, sometimes we’ve conveyed the frustrations felt by the outside world, sometimes we’ve tried to explain to the world what’s going on.

How did the response to Cyclone Nargis impact this process?

Cyclone Nargis was a turning point. It occurred in 2008, the year I became ASEAN secretary-general, and that’s why I say I was baptised by Nargis. In working with Myanmar’s leaders to deal with the tragedy, we opened up the country and rallied the world to come and help. You may remember that at the pledging conference in Yangon, even senior officials from countries that had been extremely antagonistic to Myanmar came. And that reassured Myanmar that the world was not altogether hostile and was willing to make exceptions.

What was ASEAN’S contribution?

First to convince Myanmar to open up to the relief effort, and second to help oversee the flow of goodwill coming in. The response to Nargis marked the beginning of the social and political transformation we see in Myanmar today. Before that, the country was isolated and uncomfortable with the outside world. But after we came in, Myanmar realised it could deal with us. It could cooperate with us on terms that it was comfortable with – and that the world was not going to come in and impose. So I think it was a turning point. It reinforced the government’s own roadmap for reconciliation and opening up.

Why has Myanmar embarked on this transformation?

It’s a kind of pent-up desire to be in the open. To live in the open. And I am sure the Myanmar leaders must have factored in the potential rewards of the openness. They must now believe they can ensure internal stability and that any further delay would deny them the benefits of the region’s dynamism. Why should they miss out? Of course, it took them some time to get their act together. It’s not easy, after being isolated for so long, to suddenly say: Okay, we are ready to open up. But ASEAN helped accelerate the process. We have assured them that if they continue on the road forward it will be to their benefit. And in doing so, ASEAN will be a factor they can count on. Just like when we decided that … Myanmar can become the chair in 2014.

There is no turning back?

We certainly want to make sure that they don’t go back. The phrase of ASEAN is “irreversibility”. We believe the momentum is good. They are moving in the right direction and moving very fast. The floodgates of goodwill have opened up. But we cannot be absolutely sure there will be no turning back and that’s why we are telling Myanmar that every move they make in the right direction, we are going to support them.

And we will explain it to the world, and at the same time explain to Myanmar what the world expects.

What more would you like to see in Myanmar?

We would like to see the signal of change from the top being translated down to every government agency. It needs to be reinforced and developed, it needs to be seen. The pace will depend on the level of confidence that they have from the world and from ASEAN, and what kind of reinforcement that we will be able to give them.

What impact will the ‘Myanmar Spring’ have on other ASEAN members?

That is the dilemma of ASEAN: We have such a diversity in the structure of governance among members. Some still have a one-party system, but they do not have a history of continuous military authoritarianism as Myanmar had. There may be occasions when one-party members note how the world is so excited about what is going on in Myanmar and might consider changes that would bring them the same kind of attention. It’s a yo-yo. Sometimes a bit faster, sometimes very stolid. On the whole, the trend is towards more open and participatory governance. Of course, personalities inside are different. Other members don’t have Madame Aung San Suu Kyi as a rallying point for change.

Will you meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on this trip?

I hope to see her on the last day of my visit. I have not met her before and I want to hear what she has in mind and what she expects of ASEAN. In the past, we have only dealt with governments, not with opposition figures. It’s not the tradition of ASEAN. So I must be very careful about the reaction from some member states. But in Myanmar itself, the situation has been transformed. She has met the Thai prime minister and the American secretary of state. She is no longer a forbidden person. In the past, if the ASEAN chairman tried to visit her it would have been considered a violation of protocol and politically incorrect. Now it is completely the opposite. And why not? She’s re-registered her party, she’s going to participate actively and her party will be involved in the political process. All this is creditable and must be encouraged.

What are your main concerns about Myanmar now?

I’m worried about all these people who are already gathering in Bangkok and Singapore and who are bent on exploiting Myanmar’s resources and opportunities. What ASEAN must do, what I personally need to do, and what friends of Myanmar need to do, is make sure that we remind Myanmar’s leaders that it is the welfare of the people that counts most. We have to ensure that there is a human face to the management of the country’s resources and opportunities. The entrepreneurial spirit must not overshadow the need for schools, hospitals, utilities, clean water and so on. We do not want the opening up to bring more inequality and more disruption.