H.E. Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon
Expat Life had the opportunity of sitting down and talking to the delightful Philippine Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Mary Jo Bernardo-Aragon on a fitting day – International Migration Day, December 18th. As where we would all be without Filipino nurses, doctors, and other migrant workers.
We met in the Embassy building on Sukhumvit Road – a former royal palace at Phrom Phong which the Philippine Government purchased in 1963. She hopes that the Philippine government will continue to invest in the building as it is on a central key site and is a lovely building. Currently they are building a separate entrance to the consular section to ease traffic flow through the building.
On 14 June 1949 the Philippines established diplomatic relations with Thailand and celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2019. Ambassador Mary Jo is looking forward to help organise the celebrations as a fitting end to her service to her country. It also coincides with Thailand’s Chairmanship of ASEAN, which is rotated annually among the ten Member States. Mary Jo has been the Philippine Ambassador now for two and a half years since July 2015 and was born and raised in Manilla.
This is her first posting as Ambassador and will be her last as she has served her country for over 38 years taking the oath of office when 25 years old. Her late father Benito Castro Bernardo was with the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission and was seconded by the Philippine Government to the International Atomic Agency in Vienna, Austria in 1969. While her older brother did most of his schooling in the UK, Mary Jo and her older sister were schooled in Vienna, Germany and London.
This gave her a taste and an interest in international relations. As one of three Filipino families in Vienna, she learnt how to integrate with the international community and set out to find a career that would enable her to assist Filipinos overseas. She wanted to meet different people, cultures and nationalities and contacted her embassy’s abroad to find out how one goes about applying to join the foreign service.
In the days before the internet she was advised to read as many Filipino newspapers that she could get hold of and study foreign affairs, current issues and what else she needed to learn. She found out that she could not join until the age of 25 and took the written exams in 1978. She was one of three that passed from the test centre in Geneva and was summoned to Manilla to take the oral examinations.
The interview was over 3 days – an individual interview by a panel of 7. The second day was a group discussion which concerned her, as she had been out of the Philippines for 10 years, then a formal dinner hosted by one of the Deputy Foreign Ministers. The country was under martial law then in 1978 but she was informed at the end of January 1979 that she had passed and proudly joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as it was then. She was the first in her family to go into the foreign service.
Her first overseas posting was from Carlos P. Romulo, who assigned her to Brussels between 1982 and 1990 – an 8 year posting and was on the ASEAN Brussels Committee as one of the original 5 Member States – Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The committee had regular meetings with European Commission Officials and an annual dialogue with the European Parliament.
Roberto R. Romulo signed her assignment order to the Philippine Mission to the UN in New York for her second posting between 1994 – 2001 where she took part in many debates in the UN. While assisting Filipinos overseas has always been part of the work of the Philippine Foreign Service, this mandate was further expanded in 1995 when a law was passed to protect the rights of Filipino migrant workers abroad and their families.
She was appointed as Consul General in Los Angeles by Alberto G. Romulo between June 2006 and October 2012. This was her third foreign assignment from the Romulo family. Her post before being appointed in Bangkok was as Assistant Secretary for Internal Audit to ensure good governance reporting directly to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Bangkok, as the birthplace of ASEAN and the site of several regional international organisations, is regarded as an important post for the Philippines.
In addition to being the Philippine Ambassador to Thailand, she is likewise accredited to the UN ESCAP. When she returned from Manilla on the 19th November 2017 after the ASEAN summit with a nasty cold, she still took part in the Celebration of Thai Silk in support of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s noble project. Thailand has close to 14,000 Philippine nationals working in the professional fields and there are Filipinos who are married to Thai nationals. She was pleased that the ASEAN Leaders signed the 2017 ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.
There are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippine archipelago, even more at low tide. Not nearly as many as in Indonesia where there are reputed to be more than 17,000 islands she tells me. She said that people often take her for Thai and that the Filipinos and Thais are alike as they are generous of spirit, helping each other and smiling as they go about their day. The Thais prefer spicy food though she added as an afterthought.
Her days in Bangkok are very busy and on average she attends an event or function every day but sometimes up to four when she does not even get time to attend her office. If she does ever get time off, she likes to walk around Bangkok incognito. She takes her job seriously and attends as many events as she can to represent her country especially those with women’s influence (The Red Cross, YMCA, IWC). She is fortunate and truly grateful to have a team of highly competent and dedicated officers and staff to help her in her work.
I asked if she had travelled in Thailand and she said that she has joined the Embassy’s consular outreach in Chiang Mai and Hat Yai. While in Hat Yai, she also took the opportunity to visit Pattani to meet her Filipino compatriots in the south at the invitation of Senator Anusart.
She has also joined study visits organised by the Thai Foreign Ministry and other Ministries or Foundations such as Chiang Rai, Nan, Hua Hin, Petchaburi, Samut Songkhram, North Eastern region to see the Royal development projects, the mangroves and reforestation projects, to name a few.
Her admiration of His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej came through when she spoke of his state visit to the Philippines in 1963 and she said that he had inspired so many in the SE Asia region with his Sufficiency Economy Philosophy which he shared with so many. He will be sorely missed she added.
I asked what her most cherished moment will be from her time in Thailand so far and she said that she was honoured to present her diplomatic credentials to the Crown Prince, now King Maha Vajiralongkorn. She proudly showed me her photograph of the presentation.
We ended our discussion and she kindly walked me downstairs and out into the gardens of the embassy where the busy rush hour traffic of Sukhumvit Road sped by.
A diminutive yet delightful lady with a winning smile and a fine representative of the Filipino people in Thailand.