Ban Ki-moon

Mission possible

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am


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Thailand's candidate to head the United Nations is talking about the importance of conflict avoidance. Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai outlines how he would reform the institution's upper management to buttress the involvement of the secretary-general in preventative diplomacy and resolving the world's thornier issues.

'The United Nations must become a paragon of good governance,' he told the South China Morning Post in a recent interview in Bangkok. 'And the secretary-general has to uphold its moral values from the very top ... I believe his role in conflict avoidance must be strengthened.'

Mr Surakiart is speaking from his offices in Government House, Bangkok. Outside, beyond the gardens, the ornate fence and the barricades, thousands of protesters are camped, calling for the head of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

It's not quite the conflict Mr Surakiart had in mind as he seeks to intensify his two-year drive to replace Kofi Annan, who steps down at the end of this year. If successful, he'll be the first Asian to head the troubled world body since the reign of Burmese diplomat UThant 45 years ago.

'Differences are normal in the democratic process,' he says, when asked about how he would fix the conflict raging outside his door, describing it as merely the kind of problem that plagues second-term governments of all shades in functioning democracies. 'Diversified opinion should be the sign of political development. It should not be a sign of bringing turmoil or chaos so I support very much moves for all parties to sit down together,' he says. 'Then everyone would have to step back a little so the whole process of democracy could move forward. I think that is something everyone should do.'

The opposition has boycotted a snap election called by Mr Thaksin for this Sunday. And despite constant talks about talks involving all sides, few analysts expect any concrete discussions soon.

Despite the prospect of a possible constitutional crisis after the election, Mr Surakiart is confident that the situation in Thailand will be resolved and won't derail his bid - even though his own efforts as foreign minister have been questioned by protesters. He constantly stresses he's not simply Thailand's candidate, but the representative of the whole of Asean - the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Certainly, if the race to be the next secretary-general came down to hard work, ambition and enthusiasm alone, Mr Surakiart would be a shoo-in.

For more than two years, he has conducted an international election campaign, criss-crossing West Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East to reach out to his 'constituencies'. Even before other candidates threw their hats into the ring, Mr Surakiart's speeches in capitals from Khartoum in Sudan to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea were being paraded on his slick website.

It's said latecomers often do best when it comes to the secretary-generalship, according to the many unwritten conventions that guide selection in the state-rooms of global diplomacy. But Mr Surakiart, it seems, is taking no chances.

'A lot of people have asked me why I declared my candidacy so early. I tell them it all comes down to my belief in global good governance, in transparency ... in democracy,' he says, ever eager to adopt the language of office. 'I wanted everyone to know that I was the candidate so they could talk to me. I have to get to know my constituencies. I've met ministers, academics and people from civil society and business. The concerns and priorities are different from region to region ... you need to understand the stakeholders, otherwise you won't be able to perform preventative diplomacy.'

After more than 150 bilateral meetings, the Thai government claims Mr Surakiart has support from 127 of the UN's 191 member countries.

He talks proudly of Asean's efforts to deepen its relationship with countries across East Asia, promoting multi-lateral efforts on a score of issues. 'We must remain open to one another, respecting the diversity of our paths forward, and co-operating with one another as we build a common future,' he wrote recently of regional diplomacy. 'We must also remain open to the world and to new ideas.'

The race is far from over. The 15 UN Security Council members must first endorse a candidate before a vote goes to the General Assembly. And the five permanent Security Council members - China, the US, Britain, France and Russia - all carry the right to veto.

Competition, too, has grown more intense. South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon last month threw his hat into the ring, joining another Asian candidate, veteran Sri Lankan diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs.

East Timor's Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta has been touted, but has yet to formally enter the race.

Mr Surakiart insists he welcomes the competition but seems to prefer talking about his own qualifications, goals and visions for the job. And once he gets going, he can be hard to stop.

He says the Asian candidacy is not merely a matter of geographic rotation, but of historic timing. He points to growth and development and the mushrooming of multilateral diplomacy across the region - as well as ongoing conflicts.

'It's time for Asia to have representation at the United Nations to strengthen multilateralism,' he says. 'Asia has many conflicts, we're talking about the Korean Peninsula, we're talking about India-Pakistan, we're talking about the peace process in the Middle East - all the major issues of world conflict are in Asia.

'It's appropriate to have representation from Asia, from those who know Asia, the one who understands Asia, the one who has worked on the issue of peace, stability and development in Asia, to head the organisation.'

Despite his relative youth in diplomatic terms - he's 48 - Mr Surakiart says he brings a wide range of qualifications to the job. The first Thai to graduate with a doctorate in law from Harvard University, he became Thailand's youngest finance minister for a brief spell in the year before Thailand crashed in the Asian crisis. He also served as its youngest foreign minister and, now, as the country's youngest deputy prime minister.

In the twilight of the cold war era of the late 1980s, he worked as an envoy to forge ties with the isolated regimes of Vietnam and Cambodia, representing the free-wheeling regime of then-prime minister Chatichai Choonhavan. Ten years later, he was working in the private sector on post-crash reforms in Thai banking and oil industries, which included leading Thai Oil through extensive cost-cutting and major debt restructuring.

Even that private sector experience is being tapped as Mr Surakiart talks up his credentials. 'I want to help create a United Nations for all ... to create a situation where there is a sense of ownership among stakeholders.

'I'm not just talking about member states, but about NGOs and the private sector,' he says. 'From our experience in Thailand we know that the private sector has a big role to play. You can get the poor people working with the help of the private sector to alleviate poverty.' Broadening that sense of ownership is part of what he describes as a 'hallmark' of his effort.

Despite his obvious passion, Mr Surakiart knows a great deal of work still lies ahead if he's going to succeed in his bid. He must win more support inside Thailand and, more importantly, work the diplomatic backrooms.

The display cabinets in his office point to his efforts so far. Framed pictures show a smiling, relaxed Mr Surakiart meeting the likes of US President George W. Bush and former president Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and John Bolton, Washington's abrasive ambassador to the UN. Then there are pictures of meetings with Mr Annan himself.

The US has yet to publicly back a candidate and has stated it will decide on merit rather than the notion of geographic rotation.

Mr Surakiart speaks French - an unwritten prerequisite for the job - but, so far, France has yet to back a candidate, despite a recent visit by President Jacques Chirac to Thailand. China and Japan are backing an Asian representative but officials have yet to talk publicly about their favourites.

'China, Japan and France are being very supportive,' Mr Surakiart insists. 'The timing is right.'