Surin Pitsuwan ’72, former Thai diplomat, dies at 68

Surin Pitsuwan

Photo credit: Prime Minister of Thailand

September 22, 2020

Surin Pitsuwan ’72, former secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), beloved politician, and accomplished scholar, died Thursday in Bangkok. He was 68.

“CMC and the world have lost a dear friend, talented diplomat, and dedicated global leader,” President Hiram Chodosh said.

Surin came to CMC, then Claremont Men’s College, from his native Thailand on scholarship and graduated cum laude in political science. At the College, he was a student of Prof. Harry Jaffa and stayed close to Jaffa until the professor's death in 2015. Jaffa’s colleague, CMC Prof. Emeritus Alfred Balitzer, remembered Surin fondly.

“Surin, known in Thailand as Minister Surin, was a proud son of CMC,” Balitzer said.

Balitzer said that Surin came to Claremont from an impoverished part of Thailand.

“He had never owned a pair of shoes,” Balitzer said. “When he left for Harvard, Jaffa and I helped him with funds for travel, housing, and shoes – something Surin never forgot.”

At Harvard, Surin went on to receive his master's and Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies. He then returned to Thailand to teach political science at Thammasat University. Although he received his advanced degrees from Harvard, Balitzer said, he preferred wearing his CMC ring to his Harvard ring.

“Surin was a man who moved easily between the East and West,” Balitzer said. “He read the great books of the West and the East, and always brought his education to bear on the practical problems he faced as foreign minister of Thailand.”

Surin served as Thailand’s deputy foreign minister from 1992-1995 and as foreign minister from 1997 to 2001, the longest tenure in the position in modern Thai history. He was also the first Muslim to hold that level position in the government.

He served as Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2008 to 2012. As Secretary General of ASEAN, he mediated difficult differences between ASEAN’s member countries. He brought his diplomatic skills and charm to conflicting interests, Balitzer said. Generally, Surin won the day.  

Surin was also an active alumnus. He returned to speak at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum in 1998 and as the Distinguished Commencement Speaker in 2009.

John Faranda '79, CMC Vice President and Ambassador-at-Large, said Surin arranged a special dinner for Faranda and President Emerita Pamela Gann with Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at her palace in Bangkok to discuss the ideals of a liberal arts education.

Gann recalled Surin “often reflected upon how a very poor young man won a scholarship to Claremont, and how the faculty supported him in College. He freely and publicly acknowledged the importance of the College in shaping his life.”

Fikri Pitsuwan, one of Surin’s three sons, in an email to the College, cited an example of the College’s influence on Surin’s ethos. He said that his father’s favorite poem was John Donne’s “No Man is an Island,” which he first read at CMC.

“When we were growing up,” Fikri said, “he would recite those verses to us, reminding us to always live for others. He truly believed in the words of John Donne and had lived by them.”

– Michael Tesauro



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