By: Alpha Amirrachman
Former Thai foreign minister and prominent Muslim intellectual, Surin Pistuwan, was raised in a family with strong Islamic values. So, when he was awarded an American Field Service Program scholarship to the United States, members of his Islamic community had to debate whether or not to let him go.
Some elders on the pondok (Islamic boarding school) council run by his family immediately called for a meeting. Since Pitsuwan was the first son of the pondok’s guru (teacher), and hence destined to inherit the pondok, some elders feared he would lose his Islamic values, while other, more moderate elders lent him their support.
Pitsuwan said, in an interview with The Jakarta Post, that his departure was a lonely and dramatic one, but he felt he had to go “in order to make a difference”.
These days, no one in Pitsuwan’s community should regret his decision. Pitsuwan has become a rare and respectable leader groomed from within Buddhist-majority Thailand’s Muslim minority.
“During my time studying at the pondok, my teacher always ended class by saying Waullahu ‘alam (Only God knows), as he solemnly closed the Koran under the lantern”, recalled Pitsuwan, who was a prolific columnist for the National Review and the Bangkok Post throughout the 1980s.
Born in 1949, Pitsuwan studied at Thammasart University, Thailand, and graduated in 1972 in political science from Claremont Men’s College, California. He later worked as a researcher between 1977 and 1980 at the Thai Studies Institute and the Ford Foundation. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1982, before working at the office of U.S. Democratic Congresswoman, Geraldine A. Ferraro.
Pitsuwan was elected to the Thai parliament for the first time in 1986. He served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1992 and 1995, and as Minister of Foreign Affairs between 1997 and 2001.
Still charming and energetic at 58, Pitsuwan is not only a top intellectual and longtime politician; he is also a man who is aware of how to pose for the cameras.
“No, don’t take a picture against the sun, our faces will darken”, he warned during a recent photo session with enthusiastic participants at a workshop organized by the Institute of Policy Research and the Saskawa Peace Foundation in Terengganu, Malaysia, on the sidelines of which he gave this interview to the Jakarta Post.
Pitsuwan shared his views on Thailand’s unexpected military coup and the prospect of restoring democracy in its aftermath. He also discussed the project of building peace in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south, and how to enhance relations between Thailand and Indonesia.
Do you see the coup as a setback to democracy in Thailand?
“The coup was necessary when it took place. It was supported by the people on the condition that it move the country forward and that it only be for one year. Based on that condition, the country is hoping that we will return to the path of democracy as soon as possible. Our role is to make sure that this is short and painless. We are working on to encourage the new leaders to move forward, and to get out of the way soon. Was (the coup) a step forward? No it was not. But it was a corrective measure, and unfortunately it was unconstitutional. Nobody is trying to defend this, but only asking observers to understand the reasons why it had to come to that, because all avenues to a resolution of political conflict had been closed”.
How are people going to push for a return to democracy, given that fact that Thailand no longer enjoys press freedom?
“It is not going to be easy to take away press freedom. It would cost the new leadership support. And they are beginning to realize that […] there is a sense of insecurity, but they are learning the lesson that they should not interfere quite fast. It is very risky when you close the (democratic) process […] (if you) limit the process, then you are bound to agitate people and make mistakes. I think Thai society has gone too far for that kind of imposition of control”.
Do you think that peace agreement in Aceh will have an impact on peace building measures in Muslim-populated Southern Thailand, since there was an alleged link between the Pattani insurgency and former separatists in Aceh?
“It was not very well established that there was any connection between those two, but I think it depends on the government in Bangkok. Certainly […] after a long time in Aceh you were able to come to a peace agreement. I think it was achieved because of the give-and-take and flexibility of both sides, which would have to be the ingredients of peace process in Thailand too […] acceptable conditions that lead to real justice and space for everyone culturally and economically. I think that is the guiding principle.
Do you think that the present government is more eager than the previous one to deal appropriately with the insurgency in southern Thailand?
“I think the present government has the right attitude, the right direction and is more willing to engage in more dialog, use more peaceful means and open for more interaction than just the brute force (which) under (former Thai Prime Minister) Thaksin had been the wrong approach from the beginning, creating more problems and alienation […]. Nonetheless, it will take some time to make real contributions. The problem has gone too far […] it requires a lot of effort on the part of so many people and institutions to bring back confidence”.
What do you think the people in the south should do to benefit from the present government’s attitude?
“Well, I think the truth needs to be established. The present government has now admitted that the real issues are the injustices of the past, and who should be held responsible. Also we have to concentrate on the benefits of development rather than exploiting natural resources. So people (in the south) need to be part and parcel of the development process […] and have access to political decision making. Thereby their traditions and culture will have to be a part of policy formulation in the future”.
What areas of cooperation need to be enhanced between Indonesia and Thailand?
“Economic investment is important. (Indonesia’s) natural resources are extremely rich and Thailand is industrializing more and more and needs some of these resources. For example, fishery is one area we are looking into. Energy is forever a necessary item, tourism between us is also central. I think the basis of all this will be cultural exchanges to enhance the cultural commonalities between our two countries”.
Footnote: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, seven years ago, on Tuesday, February 06, 2007. The original and full article is able to be serached again at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2007/02/06/surin-pitsuwan-bridge-between-east-and-west.html [accessed in Komp Vijaya Kusuma, Cipadung, Bandung, Indonesia: February 27, 2014].
Alpha Amirrachman is Contributor for The Jakarta Post, lived in Terengganu, Malaysia.