Interview

Thailand and Kenya have enjoyed cordial ties and close cooperation since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1967. Kenya opened its Embassy in Thailand in 2006 but had maintained an Honorary Consulate since 1992 and since then both countries have expanded cooperation in various sectors including trade and investment, health, agriculture, fisheries, amongst others.
 
Expat Life sat down with H.E. Mr. Lindsay Kimwole Kiptiness, the new Kenyan Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand with accreditation to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos PDR and Myanmar. Prior to his posting to Thailand in March 2021, Ambassador Kiptiness was the Director for Asia-Pacific Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kenya and the Deputy Head of Mission at the Kenyan Embassies in Turkey, Sudan and Botswana.
Which city were you born and brought up?
 
I was born in a village called Kartur, deep in rural Kenya, 600km, Northwest of Nairobi, the capital city. I grew up in a rural setting where I went to school every morning and, in the afternoon, looked after my father’s livestock. During weekends, my siblings and I either worked on the family land or looked after the livestock. School life was tough, often running up the hill, 10km every day to and from school without shoes. As a polygamist, my father had two homesteads set over 50km apart and he would sometimes send my sister and I to trek through the forest teeming with dangerous animals to the second homestead to take care of the animals. At the age of 12, I moved to the city of Nairobi to stay with my elder brother and was forced to a repeat class four to improve my English, which was not very good, having come from a rural setting.
 
 
At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat?
 
Deciding to be a diplomat is a recent development. Whilst growing up, I wanted to become a teacher or an army officer, luckily, I became my first choice – a teacher. I did not however teach for long as I switched to a District Officer when the opportunity arose in 1995. After 10 years, I wanted a change to a more challenging environment where I could use my deep knowledge about the local environment to promote Kenya’s interests abroad, hence the decision to transfer my services to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Kenya, you do not just join diplomatic service like any other public service, you must undergo a one year Post Graduate Diploma course in Diplomacy and International studies at the University of Nairobi as a precondition, which I did 2005. I have also attained a Master’s Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies in Turkey and a diploma in National Security and Defence Studies at the National Defence College of Kenya. I am currently writing a project for my second Master’s degree in International Studies, at the University of Nairobi and have done various diplomatic courses in the USA, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Turkey and Sudan. I have visited over 30 countries in the course of my diplomatic service. I have served in various capacities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs including as Director for Horn of Africa Division, where I handled the Sudan and Somali peace processes, been a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Personal Assistant to the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs amongst many other assignments at HQ.
 
 
Do you have any other diplomats in your family?
 
No, we have no other diplomats in the family, I am the first to join the Diplomatic service, but I will certainly not be the last, I already have two of my boys and other extended family members who want to follow in my footsteps to become a member of the Kenya diplomatic service.
 
 
How do you see Thailand today, in ASEAN, and in a wider context?
 
Thailand is an important and influential member of the ASEAN alliance and has a major role to play in the search for peace and stability in neighbouring Myanmar and the region in general. Other than the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand has a strong economy, driven by a broad manufacturing base, and tourism mostly for the export market, hence is a powerful regional economy. Through the Thailand International Cooperation Agency (TICA), Thailand has supported development cooperation not only with its neighbours but further afield in Africa and the Middle East and Kenya is a beneficiary of TICA’s capacity building programmes.
 
Due to its healthcare system, Thailand has become an affordable international medical hub and many patients come from all over the world for treatment of various ailments including cancer. In terms of managing Covid-19, especially the vaccination, the government of Thailand is doing a commendable job; imagine inoculating over 40 million people, more than half of the population despite all the challenges. Thailand is an important contributor to the maintenance of international peace and security and Kenya and Thailand have cooperated on many international issues of mutual interest.
 
 
Do you see any similarities between your country and Thailand?
 
Definitely, and tourism comes to mind. The pristine sandy beaches, common in both countries, have attracted millions of tourists from around the globe. Other similarities include, common environmental challenges and conservation credentials, tropical agriculture that includes the growing of sweet tropical fruits like mangoes, avocado and bananas. And traditional foods like sweet potatoes, cassava, melons amongst others are also common. A strong regional infrastructure, financial and communication hubs among other similarities. Both countries are influential members of regional organisations like ASEAN (for Thailand), and the East African Community (for Kenya), and subscribe to the ideals of South-South cooperation. I take this opportunity to invite and encourage Thai citizens and the huge expatriate community in Thailand to visit Kenya for a change of their holiday destination and experience the original home of the African safari. I assure them that they will not be disappointed. Witnessing the great Wildebeest migration and sand and sun bathing in the pristine and clean sandy beaches of coastal Kenya is truly unforgettable lifetime experience.
 
Do you have children, if so at what age and where do they go to school, university or work?
 
Yes, I do, some are already grown up and independent, the oldest one is 26, working in Kenya whilst the others are in university in Kenya and abroad. The youngest one stays with me here in Bangkok and studies at one of the international schools, in year 12.
 
How do you look upon your work here? How does an average day look like?
 
I do enjoy my work although much of it has been confined to the office and the residence, due to Covid-19. Much of what I set out to implement has been delayed by the Covid-19 wave that has hit the country for the last seven months. My typical day is diverse, sometimes, I rise up early to attend to internal office matters – perusing through local newspapers to make sure I am up to date on socio-political developments in the countries of accreditation, correcting and signing letters, reading official mail and letters and giving direction to officers on administrative and financial matters, signing off letters and documents, attending to consular issues where necessary, and reading reports prepared by officers before they are dispatched to headquarters. Occasionally, I chair staff and various Embassy committee meetings on matters that require me to give direction. On other days, I would attend virtual meetings with identified investors and importers, engage members of the private sector on strategies to deepen trade and investment cooperation between Kenya and Thailand and the other countries of accreditation. I would also engage identified universities to facilitate collaboration between Kenyan institutions of higher learning and their Thai counterparts. At the end of business of the day, I go home and change into my tracksuit and do a workout for 30 minutes with my son and spouse. Over the weekends, I love to take a swim and play lawn tennis.
 
Have you set some goals you really would like to fulfill before you leave Thailand?
 
Yes, I have an agenda to deepen and expand socio-economic and political relations between Kenya and Thailand and the other countries of accreditation. I intend to focus my engagements with stakeholders in both the private and public sectors in areas that are important to the national development of Kenya. These sectors include market access for Kenyan fresh agricultural produce, processed and semi-processed gemstones, leather products amongst other items. I also intend to intensify engagements with leading investors in the region to attract them to go and invest in Kenya in sectors including pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, agro-processing, blue economy, wildlife management and conservation, eco-tourism, and technology investment in the ‘Silicone’ Savanna’ of Africa, popularly known as ‘Konza Technopolis’ in Kenya that is fast emerging. Part of these engagements would be to promote human capital development and technology transfer.
Have you managed to travel in Thailand yet?
 
No, not yet, we arrived in the heat of Covid-19 so we have rarely ventured out. It has really been boring just sitting around the house or going to the office or nearby shopping malls for fear of getting infected with Covid-19. However, with the pandemic infection numbers going down, it is now time to move out and meet different people and experience the beauty of the country and its people. We have a ‘Kenya House’ in Northern Thailand that I would love to visit and plant some trees and of course the famous tourist sites of Pattaya and Phuket, that we used to hear about whilst in Kenya.
 
 
When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? Hobbies or pastimes?
 
I love tending the garden and the trees, swimming, working out, playing lawn tennis and watching the English Premier League, especially if Chelsea, my favourite team is playing.
 
 
How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?
 
We have close to 3,000 Kenyans in Thailand and other countries of accreditation. Most Kenyans in the region are either English teachers, IT experts, Missionaries, working with International Organisations, local companies or just business people. A few are married to locals and have settled here for over 30 years. Thai people are warm and friendly, their institutions love diversity and we have an opportunity to interact with them through the Embassys CSR and environmental diplomacy activities. Generally, the country is an attractive destination for many foreigners who include Kenyans. It is our desire to deepen people-to-people exchanges and would love to see more Thai people visiting and doing business in Kenya and Africa.
 
Do your country and Thailand have an exchange programme for students?
 
Yes, we do, Thailand provides many scholarships to Kenyan students at post-graduate level mostly. We have had exchange programmes between the Foreign Service Academies of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the two countries, where young Foreign Service Officers attend training in Thailand. Kenyan doctors and agricultural officers also attend short courses on matters pertaining to Universal Healthcare and modern agriculture respectively. I intend to expand these exchanges to include faculty members in the universities and research institutions.
 
Any funny moment from Thailand that youd like to tell us about?
 
Yes, we have had awkward or funny moments too. My arrival in Thailand at the beginning of the third wave of Covid-19 in March 2021 was uneventful. Usually, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, an Ambassador is received with all the VIP accolades that go with the high office of the Ambassador including being picked with a VIP car at the plane’s exit door. But because of the fear of Covid-19, we were all herded through port health, regardless of your status (and Covid-19 doesn’t make allowances for status) with very strict social distancing. At one point, I felt like I was being harassed by port health officials and my attempts to explain who I was fell on deaf ears until a Protocol Officer appeared and saved the situation. We were finally ushered out of port health and immigration and were received by a Protocol Officer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another amusing experience was during mandatory quarantine, where I could not see my spouse for sixteen days despite staying in the same hotel. To see each other, we resorted to Zoom meetings, where we read the bible and prayed together. This is one advantage that came with Covid-19. At one time, my spouse attempted to ‘sneak’ a basket of fruits to my son’s room because she doesn’t eat a lot of fruit, she was captured on camera and received a stern warning. Covid-19 is therefore one of the most humbling experiences for us as a family and every country is really struggling to deal with it through trial and error. Today international travel has become a big challenge people are hostile, fearful or suspicious of each other of having the infection, even when one just coughs or sneezes. 
 
 
Do you regularly meet up with your community?
 
Since my arrival, I have not had the opportunity to mingle physically with the Kenyan community in Thailand or any of the other countries of accreditation because of the surge in Covid-19 pandemic. I have however had several virtual meetings with the Kenyan community, and we maintain active Whats App groups to keep each other updated on consular matters and new developments. I have plans to mingle with them when the situation allows, especially during the upcoming Jamhuri (Independence Day for Kenyans) on December 12, 2021.
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On the 19th of November 2021, the German ambassador to Thailand Mr. Georg Schmidt visited the CDSC Forest in Mae Rim where 1,500 trees were planted by the students of the Christian German School Chiang Mai (CDSC) in 2020 and 2021.

The ambassador was welcomed by Mr David Nescholta, the chairman of the CDSC school board, and Mr Markus Brandtner, the principal of CDSC, at the CDSC Forest in Ban Mae Mae, Mae Rim, Chiang Mai. The CDSC Forest started as a school project to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary in 2019. Since then, 1,500 trees were planted to offset the school community’s carbon footprint with the support from the project partners, the Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU, Chiang Mai University) and the Watershed Management Chiang Mai Division. The little seeds that were collected by the students from Doi Suthep 2 years ago have now grown to 2 to 8m tall trees.

After enjoying the green scenery and clean air at the CDSC Forest, the ambassador visited the Pong Khrai Watershed Management Unit where the CDSC students were learning about how to protect the environment and planting 600 seeds that will be planted in the CDSC Forest in June 2022. Mr Schmidt said “It’s great to see how goals of the COP26 summit in Glasgow are implemented on a local level, as our children are planting trees for the future even though it’s a very difficult time for everyone due to the current situation. Planting trees is not only a great education for the students but it’s also a very practical and effective solution to save the environment.” The planted seeds were taken with the students back to the school ground and they will take care of the seeds in the tree nursery until they are ready to be planted in the forest.

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Expat Life were honoured to have the opportunity to interview the French Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Mr. Thierry Mathou please find following his thoughts. 

Thierry, if I may call you that, may I start with asking how long have you been the Ambassador to Thailand?

It is nearly a year now – time goes so fast. I arrived at the end of November 2020. 

May I ask did you arrive to Thailand direct from France, and or where were you posted before?

I was previously DG for Asia and the Pacific at the French Ministry of Foreign affairs in Paris. In this capacity I outlined the blueprint of the French Indo-Pacific strategy which was formally presented in 2018. This strategy aims to maintain an open and inclusive space, free from all forms of coercion and based on the promotion of multilateralism and the respect of international law. I also initiated France’s candidacy to the development partnership with the ASEAN, which is an important component of our Indo-Pacific strategy. I have always been convinced of the importance for France to have a comprehensive and active diplomacy in Asia where I spent most of my career. 

I started my career in Washington (1989-1993), before being appointed to Beijing twice (in 1993-1996 and 1999-2004). I held several positions in Paris at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, in particular within the Directorate of European Cooperation (1996-1999) where I was responsible for monitoring trade policy and relations between European Union with Asia and Oceania. I was then appointed Deputy Director of International Economic and Financial Affairs (2004-2006), before returning to Asia, as Consul General in Shanghai (2006-2010), a period during which I organised the French participation to the 2010 World Expo. Then I was appointed Ambassador, first to Myanmar (2011-2015), then to the Philippines (2015-2017), where I was also non-resident Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau (in residence in Manila). In 2017 I took the head of the General Directorate of Asia and Oceania (2017-2020) within the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, before coming to Bangkok. 

Alongside my diplomatic career, I am also a scholar of Himalayan Studies associated with the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. Bhutan is my main academic focus.

That is a pretty impressive background Sir. May I ask which city were you born and brought up in?

I was born in Rodez a small historical city in the South of France located in a rural area about 150km Northeast of Toulouse. Today Rodez is mainly known for its museum dedicated to its most famous citizen, Pierre Soulages, an internationally celebrated contemporary painter, who was born there in 1919. I spent my childhood and my teens in Rodez province known as Aveyron, a region famous for having some of the most beautiful villages in France, but also for the spectacular Millau viaduct – the highest road bridge in the world – and for Roquefort, which the French consider as “the king of cheeses”. Then I moved to Toulouse the centre of the European aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus and the SPOT satellite system, and to Paris where I studied political sciences, international relations and Asian languages.

At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat? 

I always knew my career would lead me to Asia. At some point I hesitated between becoming a diplomat and a full time academic. I chose diplomacy because I wanted to serve my country and to have a positive and active contribution to crisis solving. Yet I also became a non-professional academic because I think it is essential to keep an acute cross-cultural understanding and awareness of what is happening beyond borders.

Do you have any other diplomats in your family?

No. Most of my family members including my parents are teachers. My wife had a career as a banker and an international financial consultant before she decided to reorient her career to teaching, then to supporting our three children.

How do you see Thailand today, in ASEAN, and in a wider context?

Thailand must now take up the challenge of ending Covid-19 and its consequences, particularly the socio-economic ones and the grim impact that it has had on the Thai tourism industry. We wish to continue to work closely with Thailand to help revive the economy, tourism, academic and scientific exchanges.

Within ASEAN, to which it has contributed so much, Thailand is a key player. The country is facing the challenge of the situation of the Burmese neighbour.

Thailand is a partner for the promotion of multilateralism and the defence of global issues. Bangkok is an important pole of the United Nations, very active, thanks to the action of ESCAP and all the United Nations agencies which are represented and work very actively in the Thai capital. We identify many issues on which Thailand is an essential partner to lead other countries, such as the climate, the defence of biodiversity, the fight against emerging diseases and the “One Health” approach, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

Thailand will play an important regional role in Asia-Pacific in 2022 as it hosts the APEC summit. This is an event that France, which is present in the Pacific where it has territories, nationals, economic and strategic interests, and responsibilities in terms of global issues, will closely observe. In general, we see Thailand as a key partner, alongside its ASEAN partners, to build the inclusive approach advocated by France with its EU partners in the Indo-Pacific. France is about to sign a comprehensive roadmap with Thailand to upgrade our relation to the level of a strategic partnership.

Do you see similarities between your country and Thailand and if so what are they?

The size of our homelands and the size of the French and Thai population is roughly the same. Our common history goes back a long way: Thailand is the Asian country with which France has the oldest diplomatic relations. Our two nations have a lot in common: interest in gastronomy, and more generally the art of living. But both France and Thailand are far more than world acclaimed touristic destinations. They are also countries where technology and innovation development are important.

The role and presence of the sea is also essential for both our countries. The importance of maritime issues in the Indian and Pacific Oceans: Thailand, through its central geography in South-east Asia, is open to these two horizons; France is for its part, present in these two oceans, through its overseas territories (Réunion in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, and French Polynesia in particular, in the Pacific. A total of 2 million French people live in the Indo-Pacific region). It is not very well known, but 60% of the Exclusive Economic Zone of France is located in this zone (France has the second largest EEZ in the world). France, which adopted an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, supplemented at European level by that adopted this autumn by the EU, is a natural partner for Thailand, because the interests and challenges of our two countries are closely convergent;

The upcoming calendar will be an opportunity to strengthen the similarities between our two countries, which will be invested in 2022, with coordination responsibilities: Thailand with the chairmanship of APEC; France with the Presidency of the European Union.

Do you have children, if so at what age and where do they go to school, university or are they already working?

I have one daughter (29) and two boys (26 and 23). My daughter Alexandra graduated from the Institute of Political Science in Paris and Fudan University in Shanghai. After starting her career in Shanghai and Hong Kong, she is now working as a development manager in a global software company in Paris. Being perfectly fluent in Chinese she will probably return to Asia for her career. My eldest son François graduated from the French Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and from Cambridge University. He is an historian who got the academic rank of “agrégé” a French University title who entitles him to be appointment to the highest teaching posts. For the time being he is completing a PhD in History. He plans to be a university teacher and a researcher. Charles, my youngest son is an airspace engineer who graduated from ISAE-SUPAERO Aerospace Engineering Institute in Toulouse and from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. He just started a PhD in Information and Communication Science and Technology (ICST) with ONERA the French Defence, Aeronautics and Space Research Agency. He is planning to join the European Space Agency (ESA).

How do you look upon your work here? Is there anything like an average day?

The best moments of my career have been those I could spend in the field outside my office, meeting people and implementing projects in a concrete way. This is something that I have done a lot during my previous posts and I hope to do it often in Thailand. Visiting local projects both in Bangkok and going out in to the provinces to reach out to “real” people is what I enjoy the most.

Have you set some goals you really would like to fulfil before you leave Thailand?

The priorities of my activity come straight from my experience. As I said, I have an Asian prism and I am convinced we have to do more with Thailand in the context of our Indo-Pacific Strategy both at the bilateral and multilateral levels. Just as a reminder, this strategy is based on four main pillars: enhancing France’s involvement in the settlement of regional crises; strengthening our partnerships with the major regional players with whom we share the same values and interests; increasing our engagement with regional organisations, particularly the ASEAN, most likely to play a central role in the architecture of a multipolar Asia and the emergence of an inclusive Indo-Pacific space, which must exclude no-one and in which no country should impose its hegemony; and firmly committing to the promotion of global public projects, such as the climate, the environment and biodiversity, health, education, digital technology and quality infrastructure, whilst supporting greater involvement in the region of the European Union as a player in sustainable development and stability, particularly under the framework of its Connecting Europe and Asia strategy. I chose to come to Thailand to implement this strategy, because I am convinced that Thailand is a priority for us in South Asia. This is the reason why we are now working to upgrade the level of our relation to the level of a strategic partnership. 

Thailand is historically France’s oldest partner in Asia. In 2016, the two countries celebrated the 160th anniversary of their relations (the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Siam and France was signed on 15 August 1856). And in 2019, we celebrated the 333rd anniversary of the first embassy of the Kingdom of Siam to France, led by Kosa Pan in 1686. The Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha even visited France twice in June 2018. The cooperation between our two countries is good. But it is not enough. We have to do more, in all sectors: economy, defence and security, education, science and technology, and of course in ‘people to people’ exchanges with a priority on the youth. We are now working on a common road map which will allow us to upgrade our relationship to a strategic partnership. It will be signed soon at the ministerial level.

In that context we have four main priorities:

Jointly promote peace and security, notably by contributing to the development of a stable, multipolar and regional balance in the Indo-Pacific. This relates to our political, defence, security and military cooperation, which definitely need to be enhanced.

Support economic, energy and technological transitions with a special focus on encouraging bilateral dialogue in the public and private sector and on developing economic cooperation in innovative fields.

Develop ‘people to people’ exchanges in the fields of education, science, research and innovation, health, language, arts and culture, and of course tourism.

Foster cooperation on global issues

The youth of today is a priority of our initiatives.

Have you managed to travel in Thailand yet?

Not as much as I would have liked because of my busy schedule and Covid-19 constraints. I arrived in Thailand on 30 November 2020 and spent the usual two weeks in ASQ. Then we had the second and then the third wave of Covid. Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic I used windows of opportunity to go to Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Phuket were I visited French communities. I also travelled to Sukhothai, Sri Sachanalai, Kampheang Phet, Ayutthaya, and Chanthaburi and visited a couple of islands in Phang Nga Bay. I will soon go to Pattaya and Koh Samui to visit the French communities there.

When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? A hobbies or pastimes?

As already mentioned, besides my diplomatic career I am an academic who specialised in Himalayan studies. So most of my spare time (mainly at night!) is dedicating to writing books and articles, mainly on Bhutan. I am also an avid reader. I rarely have a day off. But when it is the case I spend to visit different areas of Bangkok and its neighbourhoods.

How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?

The French community in Thailand stands around 35,000 residents, 13,000 are registered at the embassy. This is the second largest French community in Asia, after China. They are mostly male and over forty years old. This community is plural and is spread over the whole of the territory. French citizens live mainly in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya but there are also a few in the most remote areas. In big cities they are mainly expats working in big companies and in Chiang Mai, the Esan provinces and islands retired people live. I met the leaders of the French associations in Thailand almost as soon as I arrived in Thailand. The French have long been integrated in Thailand where many of them have built a new life by marrying a wife or a husband and having binational children who are a bridge between our two countries. These French people are contributing to the country’s prosperity. Our companies are creating tens of thousands of job opportunities for Thai nationals and this is not only the case of big companies. Let’s take an example. Imagine a young French baker or specialist bread maker, he has some money and decides to open a pastry and bread shop in Thailand. He’s successful, making good money and employing four or five Thai people. Like him and his small company, there are countless French business owners who have invested in Thailand and started small businesses here, managed to create wealth in the kingdom and participate in the economic prosperity. But nobody knows they exist because they are not in the statistics. Trust me, they are a lot of them, and they are essential for the Thai economy and also for the place of France in Thailand, as they too, bring a little bit of “French spirit” to the country. 

After the first backpackers in the 80s, organised travel groups and French mass tourism developed in the early 90s with the appearance of direct flights from Paris to Bangkok and then Paris to Phuket when Thai Airways acquired Airbus planes. At the same period, large French companies sent many of their deserving employees to Thailand on incentive travels to reward them for their performance during the year. The French followed the first backpackers who discovered Chiang Mai, which remained a major destination for the French along with the beach destinations. Over the years Thailand has attracted French tourists because it combines many assets that distinguish it from its neighbours by bringing together historical sites, islands, gastronomy, natural sites, a welcoming population and exceptional animals. From tourists, some have become residents, married Thai women and given birth to Franco-Thai children. Thailand therefore enjoys a good image in France and the multiplication of Thai restaurants in France in recent years is undoubtedly proof that French people returning from holidays in Thailand have fond memories of it.

Let me also remind you that before Covid we had about 800,000 French tourists visit Thailand every year. They are eager to come back when the conditions are met. It will take time and it will be progressive, but they will contribute to Thailand’s recovery, assuming that the tourism industry continues to be essential to this country.  

Does your country and Thailand have an exchange program for students?

Of course. There are several intellectual and cultural exchanges programmes between Thailand and France. More than 600 hundred Thai students go to France to study every year and approximately 110 French students come to Thailand every year. (And they always have a hard time to go back to France afterwards, if I may say, because they like it so much here). You could consider that 600 is not many, but we select the best! France values and welcomes these incredible brilliant Thai students. As a result we offer many scholarship programmes for masters and doctoral students to come study in France. We also have a programme named “young researchers” which brings innovative and promising young Thai researchers to France, where they can train and continue their research in the most advanced French laboratories. We also have students in the social science field, as France developed several specific scholarships, in cooperation with the Thai government, to help train Thai magistrates. In the last few years, that amounts to hundreds of students studying and living in France. That is the priority of our cooperation in terms of budget, as it represents 65% of our exchange budget.

But what is important is that this is not random. We always try to establish sustainable research partnerships. To work with a long term vision, primarily through bilateral Franco-Thai co-financing of the projects. If both parties are financing, then everybody wants it to succeed, and gain something from it. Our numerous common research programmes are in the fields in which both our countries are interested (chemistry, biology, health, agronomy, health, engineering sciences, etc.). That is why also, France has decided to establish in Thailand most of its main French research organisations (CIRAD, IRD, IRASEC, etc.). Some of these research institutes are even settled within the amazing campuses of your universities in Thailand. Their regional networks are working hard to promote the excellence of French research in Thailand, in areas that are paramount for Thailand: air pollution, plastic pollution, climate change and, the last one is very important as we have seen in the Covid-19 crisis, the nexus “biodiversity, human health and climate change.” Also, of course, the Embassy is trying to strengthen the attractiveness of the French language in Thailand. For now, almost 600,000 Thai people are speaking French in the Kingdom, and more the 30,000 young Thai kids are studying our language at the secondary or university level. But we want more. That is why we are emphasising three priorities: support for the education system, renewal of the pool of learners and the development of French education. Our teams are helping the network of Thai teachers of French language, by engaging with them in a permanent linguistic training for Thai teachers. They are doing an incredible job in advocating Thai students to learn French and showing them, the benefits of it in their future. Like going to study in France for instance! We are even exploring right now the possibilities of creating a French school in Chiang Mai, in conjunction with the Alliance Française, the French cultural institute.

Any fun moment from Thailand that you’d like to tell us about? 

Not really a fun moment but an anecdote that will tell you something about the way France is involved in the everyday life of the Thai people in a most unexpected way. A couple of months ago I visit an experimental farm created near Khon Kaen by HM.Clause a worldwide French company specialising in the selection, production, and sales of vegetable seeds, part of the Groupe Limagrain, #1 worldwide in vegetable seeds. The ambition of this company is to contribute sustainably to the development of farmer’s activities by improving disease resistance, yield, ease of harvest, shelf life. They also work to maintain local biodiversity, by selecting seeds adapted to the local growing constraints. In doing so they are committed in Thailand to provide local farming communities the best vegetables seeds that will increase their income and improve the living of their community. As an example, they developed a new hot pepper variety, dedicated to the Thai market, the “Super Thunder” which is so popular that about 30% of the chillies grown in this country now come from their seeds, French seeds ! Gastronomy is an essential component of French and Thai culture. While hot pepper is important in Thai cuisine, it is not really the case in France except in some Southern provinces. Yet it is funny to realise that it is now one of our contribution to Thai gastronomy! I recently mentioned this to HRH Princess Sirindhorn who told me that she was curious to visit this farm which is also a cooperative and a research centre. 

Do you regularly meet up with your community?

Of course, I regularly meet up with the French community during each of my trips in the country. As already mentioned I have already met with the French community in several provinces since my arrival in November 2020. The Covid situation has made those meetings a challenge to organise, but I am deeply attached to them, and I will, now that the country seems to be reopening, try to go out and meet my fellow countrymen and women wherever they are settled in the country. Understand the way they live and the problems they face is of vital importance for me. 



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The Covid-19 epidemic has affected everyone on the planet. It continues to do so and will impact the way we live our lives for a long time to come. Some people are fortunate in that they were able to WFH (work from home) although the quality of the work they were able to provide suffered to a greater or lesser degree.

Marketing companies were able to continue operations without too many problems. Educators were able to talk to their students via Zoom or Google Meet… but it hasn’t been perfect… for two years students have suffered from not being able to grow together with their peers, to learn the important social skills that are an integral part of human development.

The hospitality industry, however, does not have a WFH option. It has been decimated by the strictures that had to be imposed in the effort to keep the dreaded virus at bay. Hotels both large and small were forced to close their doors, as were restaurants, cafes, music venues and pubs. Many of these establishments over the last two years have had to shut up shop for good, as at least 80% of their revenue had all but disappeared. Covid-19 has terminated many businesses in the same way that it has terminated lives.

Whenever you think about holidays, and travelling away from your home, the first thing that you think about is where you are going to stay. It’s usually a resort, hotel, or guest house. These businesses have suffered greatly in Thailand over the last two years, and many of the people that work in them have also lost their livelihood… front office staff and receptionists, bellboys and room maids, waiters and waitresses, chefs and kitchen staff. All either furloughed or laid off. Then there are the ancillary workers that support hotels: taxi drivers, tour guides, concessionaires, musicians, etc. In Thailand the tourism industry across the board accounts for up to 30 million jobs, out of a total population of nearly 70 million people, so it is not difficult to imagine the disastrous effect Covid-19 restrictions have had on their lives, and on Thailand.

Tourists, when they visit Thailand see the bright lights of Bangkok, the traffic gridlocked streets, the neon nightlife, the packed beaches, crowded restaurants, glistening golden temples and smiling faces. They think of Thailand as not a lot different from their own country, apart from the always gorgeous tropical climate. But they do not see beneath the surface. In Thailand there is a vast chasm between the rich and the poor.

The minimum national wage in Thailand, set by the government, is about 14,500B per month (322GBP,  or 436 USD). So, it might surprise you that Thailand has become known as ‘The Land of Smiles’ because you yourself might find it hard to smile on such an income. Thailand’s citizens, though, are not tourists, and they don’t spend their wages in the lavish way that visitors to their country do, on their much looked forward to annual holidays. Thailand is still very affordable on a cost of living basis, and a Thai family can still have a good life, even if they are on minimum wage. If you get to talk to an expat who has friends or family ‘upcountry’, next time you visit take few days to visit rural Thailand, you will be surprised at what you see. I can guarantee that you will be made welcome in the villages… you are sure to be beckoned along to join a Thai family as they eat together outside their house. Hope you like the spicy food!

The villages upcountry is where most of the workforce in Bangkok come from, and the population of the city was reduced by several million after the onset of Covid in 2019. They all returned home to live with their families, unable to afford the rent or the higher living expenses in the city. Now, though, they are trickling back, and the hotels are happy to welcome their return. These people will have been trained in their various jobs or professions by the hotels, and as soon as they open up again, they will be good to go. As you will know if you have ever stayed in a hotel in Thailand, the staff are service oriented, friendly, always seem happy, and are always ready to brighten up your day with that ubiquitous beaming Thai smile.

The year before the Covid pandemic hit – 2019 – was a record breaker for Thailand and the Kingdom welcomed almost 40 million international visitors. This was reduced to around 6 million in 2020, but as we reach the end of 2021 the country is starting to open again.

We talked to industry expert Khun Marisa Sukosol Nunbakdi about the reopening of Thailand. She is a hotelier and is the current President of the Thai Hotels Association.

Khun Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi – President of the THA

Khun Marisa, you come from a family of hoteliers in Thailand, and you are also the current President of the THA. I would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Please feel free to answer as fully as you like. I assure you I will not interrupt you. I am looking forward to gaining the benefit of your experience of the hospitality industry. I would like to ask you a few questions, if I may.

The measures that had to be taken to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus have decimated the hospitality industry. As we reach the point where 50% of the Thai population has received two doses of the vaccine, and Thailand has started to open up to international arrivals again, what percentage of hotels, resorts, and guest houses are likely to reopen, and what changes are we likely to see? In Bangkok, and in other areas.

Khun Marisa: There was hope for good recovery for the domestic market towards the end of 2020. However, when the third wave came, after Songkran, Thai New Year, of 2021 – it resulted in a semi-lockdown that began in July. Many hotels reached rock bottom, and even the larger properties had to seriously review their financial standing. At the time it was estimated that 50% of hotels were closed and an accompanying 50% of the workforce had left the industry.

With the easing of restrictions that began in October of this year, hotels began reopening once more to welcome back domestic tourists, especially those properties in destinations close to Bangkok, such as Pattaya, Hua Hin, and Khao Yai. Now, with the lifting of quarantine restrictions for vaccinated international travellers originating from 64 countries, a lot more hotels are reopening. Although it is still true that even with the relaxation of quarantine regulations, that many hotels in key tourist provinces remain closed, especially those in the 3 to 4 star categories that cater to the group travel sector.

Results of THA’s monthly survey conducted in October showed that 67% of hotels have reopened, while 8% remain temporarily closed. And results have shown that nearly 60% of the workforce in the hotels surveyed are now back in employment.

The established hotel groups such as Accor, Minor, Hilton, and the larger 5 star properties have probably been able to weather the storm, albeit after taking a large financial hit. But approximately what percentage of the smaller hotels or guest houses have not been able to survive in Thailand? And how many in number? In what way were the ones that survived able to carry on? Change of focus? Sale of assets? Diversification?

Khun Marisa: Ironically, the micro SMEs are more agile and resilient. They require less funds to open, as they have less operational costs, and fewer staff. They closed temporarily and can easily reopen once demand returns. Resilience is based on the owner’s reserve of funds, ability to obtain loans, and having the required customer demand to cover fixed costs. Mid sized hotels that are independently owned and operated and carry a sizable staff number were hardest hit due to salary commitments. It was difficult for owners with large debt obligations to survive, no matter the size of hotel. Hotels with such owners have either sold their assets or ceased operations.

During Covid, larger 5 star hotels were able to gain revenue from the domestic market, F&B, meetings and events, and income from long term stays in hotels with built in residences.

Your family are prominent hoteliers of the larger types of property, how did Covid affect your businesses, did you have to close all your hotels? What happened to the staff at these properties? Are your hotels all ready to reopen, and are your staff still available to return?

Khun Marisa: We were hit hard like everyone else. Several of our hotels closed for a couple of months last year during the first lockdown, and again this year from July through to September. Some of our properties transitioned into quarantine hotels. With resizing of our organisation, and with the help and understanding of our staff, with reduction of work hours. We have been able to hibernate through the lockdowns, and were able to open to capture domestic business, when restrictions further eased. Right now, we are open and ready, and can’t wait to welcome back our international guests.

Now that hotels are opening their doors again what are the new protocols, health and safety, etc., going to be within the hotel environment, for both guests and staff? What services and facilities will be available in the superior properties, and what might be missing, during these early days?

Khun Marisa: Universal protocols for Covid-19 prevention such as mask wearing and social distancing must be observed. All hotels that can accommodate international travellers in the reopening phase are required have SHA (Amazing Thailand safety and health administration) hygiene and safety protocols in place and 70% of their staff have to be fully vaccinated. Staff directly serving guests must be fully vaccinated with two doses. Guests can be confident in their safety. All hotel facilities will be available to guests in the early days of opening, including spa facilities and meeting rooms, albeit with protocols in place.

Tourism is an essential part of the Thai economy, and in 2019, before Covid hit, 40 million tourists visited Thailand, accounting for over 20% of the country’s GDP. What can the government and the hotel industry do to persuade people to come back, what incentives can they offer, in order that tourists and businessmen will not choose an alternative destination?

Khun Marisa: Thailand is the first country in SE Asia to open up to so many countries. The message is out that we are vaccinated and are ready. Now travellers are still required to book a one night stay in a hotel where they must stay until an RT-PCR test is conducted and the lab results have come back. They must also buy insurance worth USD50,000 and do an RT-PCR test 72 hours before departure from their own country. The only sticking point right now is the RT-PCR test on arrival. If the test can be changed to an Antigen Test which bears quicker results, more people will come. Thailand has something for every single customer segment; we can cater our offers to meet the needs of specific niche markets: Foodies, Indian weddings, digital nomads, spiritual seekers, even elephant lovers… everyone! Our advantage is that once a tourist comes to Thailand, they will most definitely come back. Before Covid, around 60% of travellers were repeat visitors. So, our aim should also be to attract more first timers to Thailand.

Many reports have been circulated in the press about the ban on alcohol in Thailand. From the beginning of November, in some provinces’ alcohol was once more allowed to be served in restaurants. Until 9.00pm. However pubs, music bars and nightclubs remain closed. Tourists are not likely to return if they feel their freedom is being curtailed. Is the government aware of this, and what can industry associations such as the THA do to help?

Khun Marisa: Yes, the government is aware. Several associations within the industry, including the THA, have voiced our concerns that if alcohol is not permitted, it will hinder the decision to travel to Thailand. Since November 1st, the government has allowed alcohol service in restaurants with SHA certification in Bangkok. That’s a good step. It is understandable that the government wants to be careful about alcohol consumption, which could lead to people congregating in large groups, and creating a fresh outbreak.

Domestic tourism has restarted and is helping to mitigate the impact on jobs and businesses in some destinations. What are the lessons have been learned from this that can be applied to the industry when foreign tourist numbers start to rise once more?

Khun Marisa: In many ways, Thai guests are harder to please than foreigners. They have high expectations, and in the last two years, there was fierce competition for the Thai market, as well. Hotels had to adapt their marketing and service strategies to attract more Thais. A big lesson learned is that we must not rest on a few market segments, hotels must be versatile in adapting services to please more diverse markets.

How important are these early days of Thailand’s reopening? Word of mouth is the best form of advertising, and the opinions and goodwill of the adventurous tourists who are the first to return will be closely looked at by potential visitors to Thailand.

Khun Marisa: Thailand has put in safety protocols for international travellers, such as pre-and post-arrival Covid testing, and insurance. These necessary measures and linking traveller information through the supply chain of hotels and authorities has to be smooth and as convenient as possible for the traveller. They should be aware that if they are tested positive, they have to be quarantined. Managing risks and their expectations will be key to mitigate any complaints. As far as I am aware, most travellers can’t wait to return to Thailand. There is a lot of pent up demand. Making sure arrivals go smoothly to create tourist satisfaction will be everyone’s job. Public and private sectors need to continue to work together to rebuild Thai tourism to be sustainable for the long term.

How long do you think it will take before the tourism and hospitality industry recovers in Thailand, will we ever see a return to the figures we saw in 2019?

Khun Marisa: I am certain we our tourist numbers will reach pre-pandemic levels again; some experts predict this to be as early as 2023. There is still so much growth to be seen, especially in the Asia-Pacific regions with the growing middle class in many countries. This is where air travel is expected see the highest growth in air travel over the coming year. And our other western visitors will be coming back to a country they love visiting. The industry will recover strongly. I am sure of it!

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Thailand and Indonesia celebrated their 70th diplomatic relations in 2020. Expat Life’s Kathy Pokrud  sat down with H.E. Mr. Rachmat Budiman, the new Indonesian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand. Accompanied by Madame Reitanty Budiman, the diplomatic couple arriving to Thailand directly from Jakarta in December last year. In April, Ambassador Rachmat presented his credentials to His Majesty Raja Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua. In January, his ambassadorship also assumed the official duty as the Indonesian Permanent Representative to the UNESCAP. Ambassador Rachmat was the Inspector General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia from 2017-2019. He served as the Indonesian Ambassador to Austria and Slovenia and Ambassador/Permanent Representative to UNODC, UNIDO, CTBTO, IAEA, OFID, and IACA from 2012 – 2017. 



Which city were you born and brought up?

I was born and grew up in Tasikmalaya, a small town located at the southeastern West Java Province. It is around 120kms from Bandung and 250kms away from Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. Tasikmalaya is known for its beautiful mountainside scenery, plaited mats, painted paper umbrellas, embroidery, hot springs and batik of particular designs and colours. I am proud to say that Tasikmalaya’s batiks are among the batik collection of King Rama V. One of the most famous places in Tasikmalaya is the remains of the Galunggung Mountain eruption, which happened in April 1982. 



At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat? 

I never had a dream to be a diplomat. Raised in the countryside, I spent my childhood playing in the paddy fields, catching kites, fishing barehanded and swimming in the river. Diplomacy had never crossed my mind until I finished my study at the faculty of law of the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. Being studied in one of the best universities in Indonesia opened my mind and perspective and that was how I finally started to apply to be the Foreign Service officer at the Indonesian foreign ministry.  

Do you have any other diplomats in your family?

No, I do not have any relatives that worked or work as a diplomat. I am the only one of the five siblings of the family that pursues this career. 



How do you see Thailand today, in ASEAN, and in a wider context?

Thailand is not only a neighbouring country, but also our close partner from the very beginning of the Independence Day of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945. Thailand is well known as a trusted and reliable friend and one of key economic drivers of ASEAN. These have undoubtedly provided strong and solid foundation for Thailand to engage with any other countries in the world including Indonesia. 

In the context of ASEAN, as we know, both Indonesia and Thailand are the founding fathers of ASEAN in 1967. Since then, both countries continuously play significant roles in the ASEAN, particularly in promoting peace, security and prosperity in the region. Indonesia and Thailand underlined the importance of ASEAN as main regional mechanism in achieving regional stability and sustainable development.



Do you see any similarities between your country and Thailand?

Historically, the fraternal ties of our two people dated back centuries ago through trade, religious contacts and exchange of cultural missions between our various kingdoms. We shared many similarities in term of culture and values. In term of language, we also shared many similarities, especially words derived from Sanskrit language such as Putra; Singha; Bhumi; Manusia/manut and Samudra/samut. Indonesia and Thailand also share same story of Ramayana and Panji or Inao in Thai. 

We also have the same traditional ceremonies particularly one that is held during harvest season when neighbours show their kindness in helping those in need without asking for money or in return. In terms of cuisine, almost all of the fruits and vegetables grown in Thailand can be found in Indonesia as well. Similar menus of Thai and Indonesian food include Sate, Gado-Gado, Serabi dan Rujak. 



Do you have children, if so at what age and where do they go to school, university or work?

Yes, I have a daughter and she got married in July. As a child of diplomat, she went to schools wherever I was assigned such as in The Hague, Perth, Vienna, and New York. She finished her Bachelor’s degree in Japan and now she lives in Jakarta with her husband. 



How do you look upon your work here? How does an average day look like?

As close partners and friends, both countries have various cooperation mechanism in term of bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation. There are many opportunities to strengthen the existing cooperation such as maritime, trade and investment, defence, research and education, agriculture, energy, as well as social and culture. I have mapped out many programmes and activities to be conducted before I arrived in Bangkok, but due to Covid-19 pandemic, some need to be adjusted and some of them have been postponed. 

During the pandemic, most of the programmes and activities are conducting virtually. We do hope that the situation will be better soon and I lam looking forward to having many activities, discussions and events to promote and strengthen the bilateral relations between Indonesia and Thailand. 

For the time being, my average day is working at the office where I will have some meetings or discussion with my team. I frequently also have online meetings with the capital to discuss many issues ranging from political, economic, social-cultural, consular and education. As the Indonesian Permanent Representative to the UNESCAP, I also attend UNESCAP meetings and chair some of their meetings, which are very crucial and relevant to Indonesia’s interest. As the situation gets better, I also have plan to have meetings or pay a courtesy call to high ranking officials in Thailand at the Ministerial level or Director General. In June 2021, I had the privilege to pay a courtesy call to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and we had a friendly discussion on issues of our two countries’ interests. 

I am also looking forward to meeting business communities, media, academician and other related stakeholders. I believe it is very essential for me to listen to everyone’s thoughts and ideas on how Thai and Indonesia can forge ahead together not only for the interest of our bilateral relations, but also of the regional and global. 

Have you set some goals you would like to fulfil before you leave Thailand?

Giving the fact the tremendous potential and opportunities the two countries possess, I have set definite goals to achieve during my assignment as the Indonesian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand. In the economic sector, my target is to boost our export to Thailand to enable us to have a more balanced trade and to increase two-way investments. Indonesia and Thailand offer many opportunities and potentials that need to be tapped into. I also believe on the importance of increasing ‘people to people contact’ that will lead to a better understanding amongst us. 



Have you managed to travel in Thailand yet?

Unfortunately, I arrived in Thailand during the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. The number of daily infection cases was higher than before and at that time the Thai government made a regional zoning policy based on the Covid situation development in each province. 

Yet, I would love to travel across Thailand when the situation permits, as the Land of Smiles offers so many beautiful natural landscapes and historical heritages and more importantly its friendly people. I am definitely looking forward to that opportunity. 



When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? Hobbies or pastimes?

I usually spend my free time to do sports and enjoy art and music. Before the pandemic situation in Bangkok is worse, we used to play soccer, tennis and badminton at our premises and sometimes I tried to play golf. We are fortunate enough that our embassy is equipped with sport facilities such as a football field, tennis court and a multi-purpose sport hall. However, since there are current restriction policies from the Thailand government, especially a ban on mass gatherings, we have to temporarily suspend our group sport activities. 



How many of your countryfolk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?

Currently, there is approximately 2,000 Indonesians living in Thailand. Most of them are students or professionals working in the international organisations or in private companies. A small percentage of them are Indonesian’s married to Thais.

Indonesians choose Thailand because Thailand is a quite open country for foreigners to live in and also its close proximity to Indonesia, which is only three hours flight. In addition, Thailand and Indonesia share similar weather and culture, which make us easier to adapt and adjust to the environment and surroundings. 

For students, Thailand is a friendly place, with many international class universities. Not only is Thailand a safe place, but another advantage is that Thailand has many choices of low cost airlines available before Covid-19 pandemic, so it is relatively convenient for Indonesians to go back and forth. 



Does your country and Thailand have an exchange programme for students?

Indonesia and Thailand have provided some scholarship schemes for students in both countries so they can study and learn in some universities in Indonesia and vice versa. The scholarship aims not only to promote people-to-people contact, but also to enhance mutual understanding among youth of the two countries. 

Some of the scholarships offered by the Indonesian Government are the Indonesian Arts and Culture Scholarship Programme (BSBI), Darmasiswa Scholarship Programme and Kemitraan Negara Berkembang Scholarship Programme for Thai Students. There are also other scholarships provided directly by Indonesian public or private universities. The BSBI and Dharmasiswa Scholarships have been successful in attracting the attention of Thais as the scholarships offer opportunities to learn Indonesian art and culture. We have actively promoted those scholarships to students across Thailand and I am proud to say that Thai students have shown great interest and enthusiasm in applying for the scholarships. Unfortunately, now we have to suspend the scholarships due to the pandemic but we will resume it once the situation gets better. 



Any funny moment from Thailand that you’d like to tell us about? 

Since I came to Thailand during the Covid-19 pandemic, I rarely had a chance to go outside the embassy to explore interesting places in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok. My fun moment so far in Thailand is that playing football at the Embassy’s premises with Indonesian students every Friday afternoon after office hours. It was really encouraging to see their spirit in playing football during which I had also the opportunity to talk freely on any issues of their needs and interests. 



Do you regularly meet up with your community?

Yes, I have a regular programme called “Dubes RI Menyapa” to meet and greet the Indonesian community in Thailand. Dubes Menyapa is a suitable platform for me to meet our people here. During the meeting, we discuss a range of issues from consular and immigration issues, business opportunities, education, health, as well as a programme of Indonesian Diaspora in Thailand to promote bilateral relations between Indonesia and Thailand. We also created a platform to help and advise the Indonesian community in need due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since there is a restriction on mass gatherings, we have held it online, but we will have it in person once the situation gets better.  

In a normal situation, we also invite all Indonesian community to attend special occasions conducted by the Embassy such as celebration of anniversary of the Indonesian Independence’s Day and celebration of religious holidays or festivals. 

We also engage the Indonesian Student’s Organisation in Thailand (PERMITHA) to collaborate with us in promoting Indonesia in Thailand, especially amongst their friends and community. We have great communication with Indonesian businessman in Thailand and held several programmes in order to support and strengthen our economic cooperation with Thailand. 




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In November last year, H.E. Mr. Moustapha El Kouny, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the Kingdom of Thailand arrived in Bangkok. Ambassador Moustapha received his credentials from the King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua in April. In addition to Thailand, he is also Ambassador to Cambodia. At the spacious embassy office, Expat Life sat down with Ambassador Moustapha to learn about his perspective on Thailand and discuss the bilateral relations between the two countries.

Egypt has one of the longest histories of any country, tracing its heritage along the Nile Delta over 7,000 years. As a cradle of civilisation, ancient Egypt saw some of the earliest developments of agriculture, central government, organised religion, writing and urbanisation. Thailand and Egypt established diplomatic relations in 1954. Egypt was the first Arab country with which Thailand established diplomatic relations.

Career diplomat 

Ambassador Moustapha is a veteran diplomat since joining the Foreign Service in1990. Born in Tunis, he graduated with the Bachelor of Commerce from Cairo University in 1987. Following the footsteps of his father who was ambassador, both he and his brother are proud ambassadors representing their country. Ambassador Moustapha recalled, “It was very competitive to join the Foreign Service. The entrance examinations were very tough that involved writing, oral and psychology. During my time, only 56 candidates were selected out of over 2,000 applicants. I was very interested to obtain knowledge of other cultures at a young age.” Prior to moving here, Ambassador Moustapha was Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2018, and Ambassador in Senegal from 2015 to 2018. Previous overseas postings include Australia, France, and Israel.

Views on similarities between Egypt and Thailand 

Expat Life asked Ambassador Moustapha on his views of Thailand, “Without doubt, Thailand is very important country in the context of ASEAN, with the 2nd largest G.D.P.” On similarities between Egypt and Thailand, Ambassador Moustapha positively shared, “Firstly, the mentality of Thais are very comparable to Egyptians who are very hospitable. Secondly, Thais relax just as Egyptians who like to do the same. Lastly, Thais are open, polite and discipline, and Egyptians are just as open to tolerance and dignity.”

On his goals during the term in Thailand, “Covid has affected the exchange of trade. My goals are to increase more cooperation between our two countries in terms of economics, investment, trade and cultural aspects. Take tourism for example, prior to Covid, there is over 40,000 Egyptian visitors to Thailand annually.”

Covid situation 

Due to the Covid situation, certain work of the embassy has been hindered with the lockdown. “Our embassy is open and staff are able to work every day within our roomy offices. In March this year, I was fortunate to meet with the Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha. I look forward to the improvement of the Covid restrictions so we can again organise more meetings with the Thai government and meet the local communities.”

On the Covid situation in Egypt, “The infection rates in Egypt has been manageable and our borders are never closed. Nevertheless, the border controls are always strict to prevent influx of refugees from our neighbouring countries. The Egyptian government has aimed to reach 40-50% of vaccination rate by end of the year, this equates to 52 million out of our population of 102 million.  We are confident that this is achievable as Egypt is one of the pharmaceutical manufacturing hubs in Africa aside from South Africa. We have produced Sinovac since May and very recently, Moderna. Discussion is under way to launch production of AstraZeneca with the U.K.”

Students exchange programme

Currently, there are around 3,700 Thais studying in Egypt prior to Covid. The Al-Azhar University is a public university in Cairo with the history of over 1,000 years. Associated with Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo, it is Egypt’s oldest degree granting university and is renowned as the most prestigious university for Islamic learning. Annually, there are scholarships granted to Thai students in scientific fields and religious studies. According to Ambassador Moustapha, “Number of scholarships has recently increased from 128 to 144 scholarships. The scholarships are granted with the objective to introduce moderate Islam and to encourage students to integrate with their societies.”

New Museum of Egyptian Civilization 

Ambassador Moustapha encourages our readers to visit Egypt, “By the end of this year, The Grand Egyptian Museum will be inaugurated. It is considered the largest museum in the world, covering 490,000 square metres and will display a collection of over than 50,000 artifacts, presenting Egyptian civilisation. It is truly an academic centre.” Further elaborated on tourism, “Egypt as a vast country with such long history, visitors will find remarkable experiences from ancient culture like pyramids, spiritual journeys, romantic outings, family fun and adventures.”

Travel around Thailand

Ambassador Moustapha candidly admitted that he is very much a “workaholic”. Spare time during weekends is spent on readings books and keeping up to date with the global news. He enjoys visits to museums and look forward to the reopening’s in Bangkok due to Covid restrictions. For the past months, Ambassador Moustapha has only managed to visit Phuket and Pattaya.

Accompanied by Madame Omneya El Kouny in Thailand with their grown up son based in France and two daughters in Egypt, Ambassador Moustapha is looking forward to have the opportunity to travel more within Thailand and experience the Thai hospitality.

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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’.

Direct communications 

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!

Jenny Littlewood

Interview 17 August

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Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions about your work and life here in Thailand. Can you begin by briefly introducing yourself?

Of course. I’m delighted to be back in this region. I’ve spent much of my working career here. My first job after university was as a French and German teacher at an international school in Sri Lanka. That was fun and rewarding, and really gave me a taste for life in this part of the world. Since I joined the Foreign Office about 20 years ago, I’ve done jobs in China, Cambodia, and back in Sri Lanka. So, I hope my regional experience will be useful in Thailand. Outside the office, I enjoy running, swimming and music (though running in the tropical heat is hard work). Outside pandemic times, I also love travelling to new and remote places. All recommendations for travel within Thailand are welcome!

Officially you are the Ambassador designate until you present your credentials to the king. Do you have any idea when that will happen?

I’m hoping to receive my letter of accreditation from the Royal Palace soon, which will enable me to arrange official meetings. I don’t yet have a date yet.

I hear that you have visited Thailand before as a tourist. What were your impressions of the country as a tourist and what were your favourite activities and destinations during your visits?

I’ve visited Thailand many times and have always had a warm welcome. Thailand has stunning scenery, a rich history and culture, and of course amazing food. It’s difficult to choose my favourite memories, but they include cycling around the ancient city of Sukhothai as a backpacker, visiting an elephant sanctuary, and trekking in national parks. I also love Bangkok for its bustling energy and dynamism (and I am looking forward to seeing that again soon!).

Obviously with travel restrictions in place since you came here which means you cannot travel much, what are your travel plans once restrictions are lifted? 

You’re right I’ve had to postpone my travel plans since I arrived. Once restrictions lift, I plan to visit the major centres for the British community across the country. My first stops will include Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Khon Kaen, Hua Hin, and other well-known locations. 

I know you have a Master’s Degree in Modern Languages, but how difficult was it for you to learn Thai?

Thai is not easy for an English native speaker. The tones and writing in particular are challenging, even after learning Chinese. One advantage of having learnt different languages is that I know what study techniques work for me. For instance, my attention span for listening exercises is much longer if I do them while walking round Lumpini park rather than sitting at a desk.

I can imagine most of the Thai you have been learning is the formal version for making speeches with a vocabulary list needed for the diplomatic world. But can you also speak street Thai? Can you, for example order food and chat about the weather?

You’re right that much of my training was designed for work at the Embassy, so there was a lot of political, economic and professional content. We also covered conversational Thai, so I feel like I can get by. Of course, as a Brit, my default conversation starter is about weather, so I feel well practised in that. 

Can you speak and understand royal language? This is not easy even for Thais.

This is one area where I really need to study more. My Thai course did include Royal vocabulary, but mostly for passive use (e.g. reading, listening). So I would definitely need some revision before trying to put my Racha Sap into practice.

One of your predecessors, Mark Kent, was a prolific tweeter and often engaged with the expat community in Thailand. He was much loved and admired for doing this, but he is a hard act to follow. I noticed you have been on Twitter since 2008 but you have only tweeted 80 times! Do you have plans on tweeting more while you are here?

Yes, indeed. Previously I’ve used Twitter mostly to monitor what’s going on.  Now I’m going to use it more. That’s why almost all my 80 tweets since 2008 have been posted since I started in July. 

Since you have been here, you’ve done a couple of videos that were posted on social media. Are you planning on doing this on a regular basis? In particular about covid updates for British citizens.

Yes, definitely. I am planning to do Thai language videos for our Thai audience and English language videos for our English speaking audience. I think it’s important that we keep people updated, and am committed to doing this. 

Out of all the social media options, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and also youTube and TikTok, which are your favourites?

I mostly use Twitter and Facebook myself, but I think different platforms have different audiences, so sometimes we need to use them for different purposes. 

There was a lot of criticism when the British government sold the old embassy grounds in Ploenchit. Now the embassy is in an office building. Do you see this as a downgrade compared to what we had before?

The Embassy move was completed before I arrived in Thailand so all I’ve known is the new Embassy. But of course, I’m aware that the Embassy move caused some controversy and some people were sad to see us move out of our former premises. I like our new building. It is a modern, light office space in a good location, so for me it is a great base from which to operate. 

You also lost your official residence and gardens which were well-known among the expat community who visited during official functions. Are you able to entertain now where you live, or will you have to hire a ballroom at a local hotel?

Although we’ve moved, I still have an official Residence (though you’re right about the garden)! Both my apartment and the Embassy have space to host official functions, so once restrictions lift, I shall host events there. 

Are you working from home at the moment, or are you going into work at the embassy?

I’ve been mostly working from home, so have spent quite a large proportion of my waking hours on video calls. That’s worked well, but I confess I’m looking forward to being out and about a bit more and away from the computer screen.  

What tips do you have for people who are working from home? How do you keep both physically healthy and sane?

For me, doing physical exercise is essential. That has been difficult when gyms, pools and parks are closed, so I’ve been doing early morning runs on the streets of Bangkok. That’s certainly a colourful way to see the city, though I have to watch out for buses, street vendors and the occasional hole in the pavement. During the day, I tend to have back to back video calls, which are useful and help me stay connected. But from time to time I need to take a break and go outside to clear my head.

This can’t be the easiest of times to take up a new post, what with the ongoing local and global pandemic. What challenges do you face ahead of you? 

That’s right, arriving during a lengthy lockdown is tough, and I am aware what a strain this has been not only for my team that has been here even longer but also the wider community. It has meant that we have to adapt plans as well as focus on resilience. I think that Covid will remain a major challenge, with much to do globally on disease control, vaccinations, and opening up travel, as well as working together on the longer term challenges of post-Covid recovery.

What new initiatives do you plan to implement over the next few years during your tenure as the British ambassador? 

I see huge opportunities for a stronger and broader relationship between the UK and Thailand. We already have many successful British businesses in Thailand, a large British community, thousands of visitors in both directions, many Thai students studying in the UK and of course many personal and family links. The big opportunity now is to work together to address the challenges of the future. So, my priorities will include a stronger trade relationship, joint action on climate change, more collaboration in science, health, education, as well as more co-operation to deal with pressing security challenges. 

Your official role is to represent the UK government. But do you also represent the interests of British citizens here? If so, how?

Of course. This is one of the most important things the Embassy does. Each year we handle well over 1,500 assistance cases, although of course most of the assistance we provide is not in the public domain. These are cases where we provide assistance to vulnerable individuals or families, many of whom who are facing a personal emergency (e.g. British nationals in hospital, detained, needing welfare support, or children who need safeguarding).

What kind of things do you really want to help people with, but protocol does not allow you to do so?

You’re right that sometimes we get requests that we can’t meet or there are restrictions governing what we can do – and they are often stricter than protocol! For example, my team can’t pay medical bills or give people money, and they can’t give people legal advice. Sometimes there are also legal restrictions. For example, we can’t share personal data with anyone without permission.

Do you have a registry of all British citizens in Thailand? For example, do you have any idea about the numbers? Can you contact everyone in an emergency?

We don’t have a registry, no. Some people will remember a system we used to have called Locate. That was stopped some years ago as so few people actually registered with us or kept their details up to date. Now we encourage everyone to sign up for Travel Advice alerts (https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/thailand) and follow us on Twitter and Facebook (@UKinThailand) – they are the best places to get advice from the Embassy, including in an emergency. 

On numbers, Thai immigration authorities tell us there are about 45,000 British residents and 2000 tourists in Thailand at the moment. 

It is often said that as the years go by, the embassy does less for its citizens. One recent example is that you no longer notarize documents such as degree certificates which are needed to get a work permit. These now have to be sent to the UK. Why is that?

We have one of the busiest consular teams of any British Embassy in the world, dealing with over 1,500 assistance cases each year, so it’s simply not true that we are doing less. But it’s correct that our focus has evolved in recent years. For example, nowadays, we focus our assistance on those most in need, and the most vulnerable. Our notarial services are also busy, handling well over 5,000 notarial and documentary services every year. This has also evolved, with some services moving online (e.g. registration of birth, marriages and deaths) and others phasing out when they become obsolete (e.g. when the Thai Government no longer requires certain documents or these services are provided locally).  When it comes to educational certificates, Thailand only recognises certificates issued by the Legalisation Office of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in the UK, so our customers need to apply for their notarized documents directly from them. 

Quite a few Brits have complained that the embassy hasn’t helped them to get vaccinated. They pointed out that the French and Chinese embassies brought in vaccines for their own citizens. Why didn’t the British embassy do that?

This has obviously been a huge issue since I arrived in July. The UK’s global approach is that we don’t provide healthcare overseas and we advise British nationals to get vaccinated in their country of residence. But when I arrived, I saw that many British people were facing real difficulties accessing vaccines locally. That’s why I made it my top priority to secure access to vaccines for the British community within the Thai national programme. I have engaged intensively with the Thai authorities at the most senior levels and we are now seeing rapid progress. Foreigners are now eligible for vaccines and there is a national registration scheme. The vaccine rollout for foreigners has started, with vulnerable groups being prioritised first, and with centres outside Bangkok now starting to receive vaccinations. Over 9,000 British nationals have already been vaccinated. There is still much to do, but I feel we now have better systems in place to ensure that British people have the access they need to vaccines.

When the UK government donated some vaccine recently, why didn’t you stipulate that some of it should be for British citizens like the Chinese did with their donation?

The UK’s priority is to save as many lives as possible. As we have said, no-one is safe until we are all safe. For that reason the UK donation went into Thailand’s national vaccination programme, where it will help ensure the most vulnerable people of all nationalities in Thailand get vaccinated. The programme is already making progress, with hundreds of thousands of people receiving vaccines each week. 

One of the main vaccines in Thailand is AstraZeneca. Although this has links to a British company, it is believed that the locally produced version is not recognized by the UK government. Is this true and will that situation change in the future?

The UK is taking a phased approach to opening up travel. For now, only those vaccinated in the UK, US and EU have their vaccines recognized for the purposes of being exempt from self isolation when arriving from an amber list country. We appreciate that this is frustrating and recognise that this needs to be expanded to include travellers from other locations. Work is under way in the UK to do this (including on the key issue of vaccine certification, on which there is no global standard), and I hope that things will move forward soon. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any closing remarks?

Thank you too, Richard. My final thought is that I feel very lucky to be in Thailand, and I’m greatly looking forward to getting to know the country and to meeting the British community here. 

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This month, Expat Life sat down with the recently appointed President of the European Association for Business and Commerce (EABC), international business consultant Luca Bernardinetti. In my eyes, this was a very smart appointment. Luca is a sharp, good looking and charismatic businessman, as may be expected of a lawyer-turned-businessman, a third generation Italian lawyer who came to SE Asia twelve years ago, realising that this is where the future was for international business.

He presents himself very well and is a man of measured words as you would expect from a lawyer skilled in international relations. With a background in banking and finance law, Luca has split his time between Singapore and Thailand in the past twelve years. In his most recent venture, he restructured the consulting and law firm Mahanakorn Partners Group (MPG) in 2016, where he currently serves as Chairman and Managing Partner.

(The firm was originally founded in 1999 by Luca’s partner inlife and business, Khun Vilasinee Thephasadin Na Ayuthaya. Last year, she was conferred the CEO Leader award 2019 by H.E. Khun Ittipol Khunpluem, Minister of Culture).

In addition to heading the Banking and Finance practice at MPG, Luca is the only non-Thai member of the ICC Thailand’s Banking Commission, the leading global rule making body for the banking industry. He contributes to various universally accepted rules and guidelines for international banking practice.

Having grown up in a respectable family of Italian lawyers, entering the legal profession was never a question for Luca, even if his departure for SE Asia marked an unexpected turn. The Bernardinetti family’s law firm was formed in 1945 by his grandfather, Senator Marzio Bernardinetti, before the Constitution of Italy was ratified. His grandfather, father and mother were all lawyers, and hoped that Luca would continue the family firm. Naturally, they were opposed to him leaving Italy at first, although his father now agrees, perhaps reluctantly, that it was a good decision. Now as EABC president, Luca is ably assisted by three VPs – Jan Eriksson (past president), Georg M. Wolff and Robert Fox and a board of international business community heavyweights: John G. Sim, Paranee Adulyapichet,

Nicholas Bellamy, Farid Bidgoli, Jerome Kelly, Stefan Molnar, Alberto Strada, Thitiwat Thanapornnithinan and Luca Vianelli. Word on the street is that they had a shaky start, but I think that Luca is a man on a mission, and likely to get the organisation on the right track.

I met Luca in MPG’s offices on Wireless Road. We sat in one of the meeting rooms, all polished dark wood and black furniture, and Luca is the focus and bright light in the room. The atmosphere grows warm as Luca begins to discuss his plans for the EABC. I begin by asking him to define the mission of the EABC, as well as his objectives for the Association during his two year term as President.

The EABC, according to Luca, is predominantly an advocacy association comprised by working groups that promote specific agenda for growth in a set of core activities – for instance, pharmaceuticals, trade, logistics and automotive. However, he clarifies, for all intents and purposes, the EABC serves as the European Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. Indeed, the EABC covers over 30 different countries in Thailand, encompassing not only the EU, but all members of the European Economic Area.

Having said that, Luca plans to extend the EABC’s focus beyond advocacy, developing the organisation’s ability to attract, facilitate, and sustain foreign direct investment between Europe and Thailand. He envisions “a platform for businesspeople in Thailand to promote their companies’ interests, and to inform them of the challenges they may face – not just in Thailand, but as Thailand is taking a central role in SE Asia in the wider geographic Mekong region”. He’s also excited by a growing trend of outbound Thai investment in Europe – for instance, Central Group’s recent high end retail investments in Italy with the Rinascente Group and the Swiss luxury department store chain Globus, along with eight associated real estate properties at top inner city locations from the Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund (MGB) Group and anticipates strengthened European-Thai economic cooperation in the future, such as through the proposed Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Thailand.

Speaking of cooperation, I remark that H. E. Mr. Pirkka Tapiola, the (Finnish) European Ambassador to Thailand, has done an excellent job of championing the combined strengths of the EU’s member countries. Luca explains that sadly Pirkka is likely to move back to Brussels next year, but remains committed to furthering the interests of European business in Thailand by working closely with the EABC.

Luca shares a few of the plans they have discussed, including a reception at the EU Residence for European Ambassadors, Thai and European business leaders, and representatives from the Thai government.

This brings us to the subject of event planning, which Luca says will be integral to the EABC’s new focus on information sharing and networking.

EABC sets itself apart from bilateral Chambers of Commerce in that it does not organise evening networking events set around a bar theme. The events are typically conferences, luncheons and workshops, which Luca has already been working on planning – for instance, a lunch between the Thai Minister of Commerce, the Ambassador of the EU H.E. Mr. Pirkka Tapiola and other business leaders to discuss the aforementioned Free Trade Agreement.

In the past I have attended a number of the “networking opportunities” that the individual Chambers held but always felt that the joint (Tri or Multi Chamber) events were by far the more successful ones. I was pleased to hear that the EABC is not planning any of these evening drinking opportunities and would focus more on the business aspects of union. Working groups, representing the international community and engaging and connecting with our Thai hosts, the government and business communities. Breakfast presentations, working lunches – gone are the old days when business was done over several bottles of expensive wine at the company’s expense.

Luca agrees that partnership with other business associations and Chambers is key. He speaks with respect about the JFCCT and said he hopes to liaise and run joint events with them, the Thai government and the greater business community. This type of cooperation is obviously the future for the Thai Chambers of Commerce. Either this, a union with the JFCCT and or both. I tell him that I feel the 30 odd individual country Chambers are all a bit “jobs for the boys” and too cliquish for my tastes. You are either in favour or not, and me being me, I am far too outspoken to be in the “in group”. Luca emphasises that inclusiveness will be key to the new EABC. He acknowledges that there has been rivalry between the bilateral Chambers of Commerce and the EABC; however, many wish to work together and the EABC will seek further cooperation with other Chambers and business associations.

“We want to appeal to all European
businesspeople in Thailand,” he says,
“whether they are retired or still
working, and we want to appeal to
the Thai business community, as
well as all those that may have an
interest in investment in Thailand.”

I can see the role of the EABC being far clearer and more effective than it has been in the past.

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Thailand and Portugal have enjoyed over 500 years of bilateral relations, and Portugal was the first European nation to make contact with the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1511. Expat Life recently sat down with H.E. Mr. Joao-Bernardo Weinstein, the new Portuguese Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand. Arriving directly to Thailand in January this year from his ambassadorship in Israel, Ambassador Weinstein received his credentials from the King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua in April. In addition to Thailand, he is also Ambassador non-resident to Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam.  

Multi linguist career diplomat

Ambassador Weinstein was born in Lisbon, Portugal. He graduated with a First Degree and Ph.D. in History, and Masters in Political Sciences at the University of Paris. He speaks seven languages, including Portuguese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Romanian. Ambassador Weinstein recalled why he chose a diplomatic career, “My German great grandfather was the Consul-General to the German empire. As a banker and businessman, he was very much involved of both diplomatic and business affairs. Our family moved to Portugal in 1880. I think I was already fascinated with the idea of becoming a diplomat since I was a 12 year old boy. I started off my first two years of working career as a professor before joining the Foreign Service in 1986”. 

During a distinctive diplomatic career, Ambassador Weinstein has had overseas postings in Austria, Cyprus, India, Italy and Germany. His first ambassadorship was in Romania (2013) and in Moldova (non-resident 2014) followed by Israel (2017).

Impressions on Thailand

Expat Life asked Ambassador Weinstein on his views of Thailand in ASEAN, “Thailand as a founder member of ASEAN is an important and responsible partner. My impression is that Thailand often acts very discreet with traditional quiet diplomacy to deal with authoritarian regimes, as opposed to more outspoken countries. It is a very interesting manner of doing things that may be, in some circumstances, more efficacious.

On the subject of similarities between Portugal and Thailand, “Portugal is a country of sea traders and explorers, with our extensive history, there are Portuguese influence in Thailand in terms of architecture and cuisine. I am very impressed with the grandiose of Thai temples. I believe that there are similarities between our two countries. A very good, and touching, example is the love of children and the culture of close family orientation.”

Covid restrictions

With the current Covid restrictions, Ambassador Weinstein has frankly admitted that it has put certain limitations to his work. “For the first two months after my arrival, I was able to meet with representatives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the diplomatic core and other business communities. Unfortunately, since the partial lockdown from April, meetings are limited to online. Video conferencing as the new form of communication cannot compare the effectiveness of face-to-face physical discussions. The uncertain progress of the Covid situation also dampens our ability to set goals. At this stage we focus on Consular work, trying to support Portuguese nationals living in Thailand and/or in the other countries we are accredited to, and study how best to resume our work in the cultural, business and political domains when the time is again appropriate for it.

On travelling around Thailand, Ambassador Weinstein regretted that he has not had the opportunity to travel around yet. On weekends, apart from enjoying his love of reading, “I like taking walks from our embassy to Chinatown to explore new temples or cultural attractions. I appreciated the visit to the National Museum and Jim Thompson’s House.”

Thailand as a tourist destination

According to Ambassador Weinstein, there is not a huge community of Portuguese living in Thailand, around 200. Due to the Covid situation, it has not been possible to meet up with his local community. Thailand is a desirable tourist destination for Portuguese visitors. “There is a classic Siamese style pavilion built in Jardim de Vasco da Gama, Lisbon. It was a tributary gift to Portugal from the Thai government. The Thai Pavilion was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness, the Princess Maha Sirindhorn in 2012, and represents a token of friendship and recognition of 500 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There are Thai restaurants in Portugal. We also see Thai investment in our country.”

On the subject of students exchange programme, Ambassador Weinstein shared, “Currently, we do not have many exchange programme for students.  This is one area that I hope to focus and improve on.”

As Expat Life closes the interview, Ambassador Weinstein shared, “Although I have arrived in Bangkok for a few months, I visited Thailand before as a tourist and very much looked forward to my posting here. Thai hospitality is well recognised and I totally agree. I have felt tremendously welcome since my arrival.”

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