What Comes after Kofi?

With all the recent talk about UN reform, one item has gotten short shrift: a new face will be replacing current secretary-general, Kofi Annan in the near future.

Annan's second five-year term ends in December 2006, and already speculation has begun regarding his successor. According to many sources, it is "now Asia's turn to fill the post." There has not been an Asian at the helm of the UN since Burma's U Thant, who served from 1961 until 1971. Since then, an Austrian, a Peruvian, an Egyptian, and now a Ghanaian have held the post. Previous to U-Thant, a Norwegian and a Swede served as the UN chief. No Americans have ever held the position.

Here in Thailand, the government is already campaigning for one of its own diplomats - former Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai - to succeed Annan. Surakiart has been making frequent trips abroad this year to drum up support for his candidacy, and even Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is starting to do his share of political arm-twisting while on overseas excursions.

So who is this Surakiart fellow and what makes him qualified for the UN post? Now a Deputy Prime Minister in Thaksin's cabinet, Surakiart was Foreign Minister from 2001 until earlier this year. Previous to that position he was an economic advisor to the Thai government and served briefly as Finance Minister. He graduated from Thailand's prestigious Chulalongkorn University and obtained law and economics degrees in the US from Harvard and Tufts University.

Despite those impressive credentials Surakiart is considered by many political analysts to be no more than a mediocre diplomat with a somewhat tainted track record. During Surakiart's term as Foreign Minister several disturbing incidents alarmed human rights observers. It is estimated that more than 2,600 Thais died during the government's controversial "crackdown" on drugs in 2003. Shoot first and ask questions later seemed to be the policy. Last year produced more black eyes for the Thai government. A prominent Muslim lawyer (who was representing some suspected terrorists) mysteriously "disappeared." In the country's predominantly Muslim southern provinces there have been several incidents: Thai troops fired into a mosque, killing 32 "suspected militants." A few months later, 85 protesters died in a single day while in police custody. Did they suffocate? Were they beaten? The Thai government has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation as to what happened. Meanwhile, terrorist incidents in the restive Deep South continue unabated.

The "Burma Issue" also haunts Surakiart. He has been criticized for his soft approach in dealing with the much-maligned Burmese government (who continue to hold opposition leader Aung San Sun Kyi under house arrest). One explanation for Thailand's refusal to condemn the Burmese junta (like virtually every other democracy in the world has done) is the fact that PM Thaksin has business interests in that country. Shin Corporation, a telecommunications company he founded (and still holds a 53% interest) was recently awarded a lucrative contract to install 5,000 satellite-receiving stations in Burma.

If Thailand continues to push Surakiart as a candidate, these issues will surely resurface. Will the UN elect an Asian simply because it's their turn - or will they choose the most capable candidate?

1 comment:

John in Atlanta said...

I'd like to think they would choose a more capable candidate but then we're nominating Bolton to represent the US. It looks like sanity is not the order of the day anymore.