H.E. Mrs. Suchitra Durai, Indian Ambassador to Thailand

by Expat Life
Mrs. Suchitra Durai Indian Ambassador to Thailand

Did you know that the origin of the Thai greeting sawadee (hello) comes from the Sanskrit word स्वस्ति (svasti) meaning blessing or wellbeing? After a morning with H.E. Mrs. Suchitra Durai, Indian Ambassador to Thailand, I had the opportunity to learn so much more about the deeply rooted connections between these two ancient cultures.

The ubiquitous wai (hands together and bowed head) also originated in India as did Thai script and Pali language which is what the most sacred Buddhist religious texts are written in. Even the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration logo reflects the close ties as it showcases the Hindu God, Lord Indra. Mrs. Durai is a wealth of information about the history and connection between Thailand and India but she is also very excited about the constantly evolving relationship and future diplomatic relations.

Public service runs in the family in the case of Suchitra Durai; four generations of her family have worked in high-level government positions in India so it seems almost fated that she would as well. Looking many decades into the past, her grandfather was a very senior level government official when India was still part of the British empire. Her father encouraged both her and her sister to be well educated and economically independent. Government service jobs in India offer the type of security he was seeking for his daughters as well as the opportunity to contribute something back to the country.

After graduating from university with a bachelor’s degree in English, Mrs. Durai worked for three years as a journalist before taking the challenging All India Civil Services Exam. Because she scored well, she was able to have her choice of departments to work in and she opted for Foreign Service. She also has two Master’s Degrees from the University of Madras, one in English and another in Philosophy. In addition to English, she also speaks Hindi, Tamil and Spanish. Her Thai is in the works.

Mrs. Suchitra Durai Indian Ambassador to Thailand

Since 1988, she has worked in various capacities for the Indian Foreign Service. Before being appointed to her position as Ambassador to Thailand 7 months ago, she served as the High Commissioner of India to Kenya, Ambassador to Somalia and Permanent Representative of India to the UN office in Nairobi. Before that, she served as India’s Ambassador to Eritrea. Prior to these major appointments, she worked in various other capacities for the Indian Foreign Service both at home and abroad, including positions in Vienna, Cairo, Buenos Aires and Madrid.

When I asked what drew her to a career in diplomacy she said with a smile, “Diplomacy combines patriotism with living abroad which is very attractive too many, including me.” After nearly three decades as a career diplomat, she is particularly excited about her appointment to Thailand. She has felt comfortable in her adjustment to the Kingdom and couldn’t recall any major stumbling blocks in her settlement into her new position. The cultural connection to Thailand and many years of diplomatic relations have formed a strong foundation for her to build upon. There are nearly 80,000 Indian nationals living in Thailand and the approximately 250,000 Thai-Indians help form a unique bridge between the two cultures.

Mrs. Suchitra Durai Indian Ambassador to Thailand

One of Mrs. Durai’s main goals is to help Thai people understand contemporary India across all disciplines whether it be economic, cultural, scientific or political. Because of all the history between the two cultures, one of her challenges is communicating to the average Thai person what modern India is all about. India is not simply the birthplace of Buddha and ancient temples. She is seeking to promote India as a place to get a world class education, a place to visit as a tourist (outside of the religious sites) and of course, as a major economic partner.

Currently, there are nearly 5,000 Thai people enrolled in higher education programmes in India. Mrs. Durai would like to see that number increase steadily during her tenure. Technology and science are flourishing in India and the academic institutions are largely to thank for this. Whether you want to study robotics, nuclear power, artificial intelligence or something even more cutting-edge, India is a major global player in high-tech education. There are 25 university level scholarships available to Thai people to come to India for higher education. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation is another opportunity for Thai people to study in India on scholarship. MGC was established nearly 20 years ago and comprises six member countries: India, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. The focus is on cooperation in tourism, culture, education and transportation. India is the lead country for the education working group of MGC. She further explained that the opportunity for educational cooperation isn’t only for university students; India also welcomes Thai military personnel to train with the Indian military.

Thailand and India are no strangers to massive influxes of tourists. Every year, there are almost 1.6 million Indians who come to the Kingdom for tourism. Conversely, there are only 150,000 Thai people who visit India every year, the majority of them to visit holy Buddhist sites such as the birthplace of Buddha. “India has temples, of course, but also snow, adventure tourism, wildlife sanctuaries, beautiful beaches and a lot more to offer tourists,” Mrs. Durai said with pride. She believes if more Thai people were aware of the diversity of activities that India offers, it would become a much more popular destination. She sees tourism as a real area for growth. In her short time in Thailand, she has done some tourism herself. She visited ancient Khmer ruins in Phimai, Nakhon Ratchasima province and went paragliding with her husband and children in Rayong.

Mrs. Suchitra Durai Indian Ambassador to Thailand

Economic collaboration is her largest initiative. Right now, there is about $12.5 billion USD worth of trade between Thailand and India; $7.6 billion in Thai exports to India and $4.86 billion in Indian exports to Thailand. In the ASEAN region, Thailand ranks as India’s fifth largest trading partner behind Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, so there is certainly room for growth. Trade between these two countries has been growing significantly in the last few years and shows no sign of slowing down.

Reduced tariff rates and new initiatives, which both countries adhere to, have resulted in an eightfold increase in bilateral trade since 2000. 2017 saw 35% growth and 2018 saw 20% growth. By 2021, Mrs. Durai aims to put that trade number at $20 billion USD. She recognises that this is an ambitious goal, but believes they can reach it. The active India-Thai Chamber of Commerce and India-Thai Business Association coupled with the 2013 establishment of a Joint Business Council all stimulate bilateral trade and investments and present opportunities for business networking.

Outside these major diplomatic initiatives, Mrs. Durai and her team have lots of exciting cultural events that they would like to share with both the expat community and Thai nationals. This year is the 150th anniversary of Ghandi’s birth and there are many talks and events scheduled to celebrate this milestone including a tree planting ceremony, a community bike ride and a children’s drawing contest. Check out the Embassy’s website for a schedule of upcoming events. Mrs. Durai generously gifted me a copy of Ghandi’s autobiography after our interview which I have truly enjoyed reading.

The Indian cultural centre has been operating for ten years and offers a wide range of courses in language, dance, music and culture. For the recent coronation of Rama 10, India brought a famous dance troupe to celebrate. At the time of publishing, we have just missed International Yoga Day 2019 but put it on your calendar for next year. The Indian embassy hosts an event for nearly 8,000 people at Chulalongkorn University to practice yoga together. The Indian Social Club Fun Fair is another annual event that draws crowds of over 10,000 people.

If sports are your thing, register for the Sikh Association’s annual road race. I did it a few years ago and it was a lot of fun. If you attend any of the myriad of events sponsored by the Indian Embassy or any of the Indian associations, keep an eye out for the Ambassador as she makes a point to be very involved in her expat community.

Remaining consistent with her theme of making contemporary India more visible to Thailand, Mrs. Durai is responsible for a major construction project as well. Despite the fact that India has had an Embassy in Thailand since their independence in 1947, they do not have a formal residence for the Ambassador; they have always rented. Ground has been broken and construction begun on the first official Indian Ambassador’s residence which will be completed during her tenure. The dynamic relationship between Thailand and India continues to evolve. Economically, culturally, educationally there are so many opportunities for growth and partnership, all rooted in a shared cultural background. With Mrs. Durai’s leadership and passion driving diplomatic efforts, there’s a lot to be excited about for relations between these two old friends.

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