In a sign of the times, Expat Life’s Jenny Littlewood caught up with Swiss Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Helene Budliger Artieda and her invited guest Mr. Pedro Basabe Head of Regional Hub of Humanitarian Aid Asia and Pacific by Zoom meeting.
Ambassador Helene shared her thoughts on the pandemic, vaccinations and Switzerland’s donation of medical supplies to Thailand. Also discussed was Swiss Vice President Ignazio Cassis’ visit to Thailand to commemorate 90 years of bilateral relations between the two nations. As well as looking for positives in a pandemic, dogs and much more.
Ambassador, Expat Life in Thailand had the pleasure of meeting you a year ago, thank you for the opportunity to catch up again in 2021. How has your year been?
It’s been rather a unique year in my professional career for sure. We’ve had a year of continuing pandemic crisis management, when all of us were hoping that we were at the end of the tunnel. 2021 has been surprisingly more challenging than last year.
I now have the concerns of my team operating in a deep red zone. The challenge has been how to best keep our doors open to provide basic services such as passports and consular assistance. Alongside this are the considerations regarding the wellbeing and safety of our Swiss citizens.
It’s been a year of multiple worries, but we managed to cope as best as we could. So also, I have a feeling of satisfaction that we’ve been able to prevail, given the difficult circumstances’.
What has been your most challenging aspect as Ambassador this year?
We, like many have had cases of Covid-19 amongst our staff. Thankfully not serious, but it hits home closely, when this happens, with concerns for the welfare of staff and their families.
This was the moment when I felt the pandemic is now a different ball game for us as an Embassy.
What are the greatest challenges for the Swiss community?
We have about 10,000 Swiss nationals living in Thailand. Access to vaccines is on the top of their worries, mine too. I think it’s extremely important that we are fair to Thailand here too. It’s a worry for Thai people as well.
I am confident that Thailand is now making progress in this regard. However It will be important to speed up vaccinations for all, according to the priorities established by the Thai authorities. We place high priority on ensuring the embassy can be relied on to get the right information out to our community. We live in an era of a constant social media flurry. It’s become almost a full time job for us too’.
Helene is true to her word here, a quick Google search finds her appearing on Youtube, and even featuring in a radio podcast called ‘The Ambassador’.
The Swiss embassy team presents information to their multilingual community in a clear, down to earth and natural way. In doing so the ambassadorial text book on communications is being rewritten.
Long gone is formal dialogue with the Swiss community, hello #AskTheEmbassy Facebook Live.
Ambassador Helene is a natural bridge builder. Joining the panel for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) forum on Thailand’s Vaccine Strategy may have made her slightly nervous, given the title ‘What went wrong?’ But it was a gamble of diplomacy that paid off and won the admiration of many.
To say Helene and her staff have embraced the demands of mass social media in a pandemic, is an understatement.
Ambassador Helene continues: We do see light at the end of the tunnel with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs having earmarked vaccines now for expats. It might sound like empty slogans ‘We’re not all safe, until everyone is safe.’ But I am paid to worry about the Swiss community, but I worry that everyone in Thailand has access to vaccines. Switzerland wanted to stand by its long standing friend Thailand, with a supply of medical goods that we have were able to ship in at the end of July. I have included Pedro today because often everyone thinks embassies equal ambassadors. But we have a whole embassy team with much more expertise than I.
Switzerland’s donation of medical supplies
Pedro, I understand you’ve been the lead on bringing medical supplies from Switzerland to Thailand. How did this come about? How has your year been?
I have been based in Thailand for 4 years after 15 years with the UN, and 20 years with the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Corp. Our role is to prepare for disaster in the region, in case humanitarian assistance is needed. Since March 2020 this includes Covid-19 and vaccine support crisis management.
Switzerland has a policy to support other countries in fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic. The Swiss government has donated 102 respirators and 1.1 million Antigen test kits for distribution within Thailand to help with Covid-19 responses.
Prevention is key
I want to stress the importance of our work in terms of prevention. As everyone knows what to do and how to act when they see a red traffic light, so everyone should know how to act in time of disasters and pandemic crisis. Our role involves policy dialogue, and training across the ASEAN states as well as projects implementation.
Ambassador Helene adds, Pedro has been very humble here. The reality is the Humanitarian Aid team has changed their operations from being one of the most globally mobile teams at the embassy, to the most digital team.
Pedro’s team has arranged Switzerland’s medical goods donation programme across the region. This has involved endless coordination meetings particularly to see how Switzerland can assist in Myanmar. This global team approach means Zoom meetings often at impossible hours.
This must have taken a toll for you Pedro? There is a beautiful dynamic here. Pedro absolutely and politely refuses to be drawn into the limelight…
I don’t really like to talk about me, I’ve had more than 35 years of dealing with disaster risk reduction and emergencies. We are used to dealing in crisis management mode. It’s how it works in our job, we are very pleased to support’
Pedro replies in a calm and self-humble depreciating manner, an ideal go to friend in any crisis. He has such a soothing and everything is under control manner, that I’m sorry this is not a podcast for you to hear!
Ambassador, could you tell us why you joined the FCCT vaccine forum?
People were upset at the slow roll out of Thailand’s vaccination programme. I understand this, however when embassies became an outlet for people’s anger, I felt this was unfair. It’s not true that ambassadors don’t care. This is the number one priority of every ambassador I speak to.
In June, I saw that the Thai government system was taking some time because of lack of access to vaccines, not only for expats but for everybody. I decided to play an intermediary role between vaccine opportunities available out of the Thai medical system and the allocation of them to our Swiss community. We are all trying to find solutions and to be proactive, but we have differing frameworks which makes it really complicated’.
Differing embassy frameworks
I really salute the French Ambassador who was able to get vaccines from his capital. None of the ambassadors I talked to had this privilege, myself included.
It is not because the ambassador is not doing his/her job, it’s just different frameworks. As much as I would have loved for my capital to send me vaccines, it’s not happening at this time.’
The Swiss embassy framework
My Swiss HQ supported me to find a solution, which is tricky when it involves health and medical data. Switzerland has very strong data protection laws. However we were able to navigate these because we are one of the few embassies who have mandatory registration for citizens.
Certain ambassadors operate in countries where liability carries huge risk, I have a certain leeway where if a Swiss person signs a liability clause, then I’m good to go.
Mine was a strategic decision, other ambassadors couldn’t take that route and we are all still on good terms. All of us are trying to serve our respective communities as best as we can’.
Helene’s explanation of events and bridge building across many communities has won much admiration. As Jonathan Head, MC at the FCCT forum said in closing the event: If you are an elderly Swiss national in Thailand you have definitely drawn the lucky card.
We note, you’ve recently had the high profile visit of Vice President Ignazio Cassis to Thailand. Could you tell us more about this visit?
Vice President Ignazio Cassis toured SE Asia visiting Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
As a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Thailand, the visit commemorated the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Swiss-Thai Treaty of Friendship and Commerce.
This was a working visit during difficult times, isn’t that what friends are for? To stand by your friends in difficult times.
We have the biggest Swiss community here in Asia. It was equally important for my Minister to have an interaction with the Swiss community living in Thailand, who had been vocal regarding the vaccine situation.
It gave an opportunity for both countries to discuss measures to upgrade their bilateral relations, especially on public health, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, education, trade, and investment.
Moreover, the Swiss delegation handed over a donation of medical supplies as previously mentioned.
What is special about the Swiss-Thai Relationship?
The origins of ninety years of bilateral relations starts with His Majesty King Chulalongkorn’s famous visits to several European countries, returning with a mission to modernise the Kingdom of Siam.
Switzerland is an export driven market. When deciding how to proceed with potential bilateral relations between the two countries, the Swiss government at that time, sought advice from Swiss companies already operating in Thailand.
Ambassador Helene laughs, this is a very Swiss approach she explains. We are not at all a top down country. We are a confederation. We are highly decentralised, with a symbiotic relationship between government, civil society and the private sector. Switzerland is a country with a very different government and approach to how the country is run, compared with other countries.
The late King Bhumibol and his siblings were educated and grew up in Switzerland which has given us a very special touch of the relationship. Our countries like and respect each other, despite our very different approaches.
We now have over 200 Swiss-related companies in Thailand, some for over 100 years. We are top 10, or top 12 depending on the ranking index checked, of direct foreign investors in Thailand. We have the biggest Swiss community in Asia and there are approximately 30,000 Thais living in Switzerland.
Both countries had, before Covid, huge tourist growth potential. Thailand is the preferred tourist destination in SE Asia for Swiss people.
It is truly amazing to see how well Thai people know Switzerland and vicesa versa. It’s well beyond the glossy tourist things that must be seen. They know every corner of Switzerland and are well informed.
Likewise for Swiss people in Thailand. A relationship with Thailand might start on a beach in Phuket or Pattaya. They love it, they discover it, they come back, they travel up North… Swiss people are to be found everywhere in Thailand.
What have you found to appreciate here in Thailand since we last spoke?
I continue to appreciate working amongst the calmness and the gentleness of the Thai people. The way the Thai people are reacting around me has calmed me down, as by nature I’m rather outgoing. I am sure I am calmer here in Thailand than I would be elsewhere!
I have also appreciated the space and time a reduced work event schedule has given in both my professional and personal life.
At the embassy we all benefitted for example with the recent visit of Vice President Ignazio Cassis who was able to spend added time with my staff at the Embassy. When has that ever happened? Never! Not because officials aren’t interested to do so, but just because the schedule is so full.
At home, I have more time with my husband and our dogs. I am not a good housewife but we cook together at weekends, we still do jigsaw puzzles and the dogs love it!
Don’t get me wrong, I will be happily going back to a little bit more interactive professional life, and wouldn’t want this for the rest of my life, but let’s enjoy this part of our current lifestyle giving meaningful time with those around us’
Thank you to H.E. Ambassador Helene Budliger Artieda and Mr. Pedro Basabe for their generous time to compile this interview Here’s to future interviews in person meetings at Swiss Embassy with chocolate!
Interview 17 August