EXPAT LIFE sat down with H.E. Mr. Asim Iftikhar Ahmad, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to Thailand to find out more about him and his posting to Thailand.
How long have you been the Ambassador to Thailand?
Well, as you say, time flies. It has been almost two years now. We arrived at the end of June 2017. I had the great honour of presenting my credentials to His Majesty the King on 28 November 2017.
Did you arrive to Thailand straight from home, or were you posted somewhere else before?
We came from Islamabad, yes. In the Foreign Service of Pakistan, there is a system of rotation, whereby normally you are abroad for about 6 years with two consecutive postings of 3 years each, and then about 2-3 years back home. So I was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before coming to Thailand. Prior to that, I was assigned at the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York.
May I ask where were you born and brought up?
Lahore is my place of birth and hometown. Our family has lived in Lahore for generations, initially in the famed walled city, and then also moving out and spreading around as the city expanded and transformed into a big metropolis. From childhood to university, most of my time was spent in Lahore until I moved to Islamabad, the capital, after joining the Foreign Service. Belonging to and growing up in Lahore is quite an experience. Lahore is a historical city, as well as the cultural capital of Pakistan, a major centre of sports, education and literary activities. It is the hub of politics, and home to the country’s film, music and fashion industry. With its wide variety of cuisine, Lahore is also a haven for food lovers. Lahore is most famous for kite flying and that is an activity that thrilled me most while growing up in the city. In Pakistan, we say “one who has not seen Lahore is not yet born”. “Lahore is Lahore” is the famous adage referring to the lively city.
At which age did you decide you wanted to become a diplomat?
I cannot say exactly, but it was certainly not a childhood dream or anything like that. I was always fascinated by sports, and would not miss a chance to play different sports in school and college days. But perhaps I did not have the kind of exceptional talent that is required to excel at a more competitive or professional level of sport. Somehow the academic side was much better and also took most of my time, with sports relegated to leisure activity. Anyway I pursued my studies in engineering, and whilst I did pretty well, I also realised that I had not developed the special liking that would keep you going in that field. Besides, from my initial work experience, I felt that the Civil Service offered more avenues and space to bring about progress and real change in various fields through improvement at systemic and policy levels. Also at the back of my mind was the longstanding desire of my father that I join the Civil Service. So I decided to take the Civil Services entrance exam. Having qualified, what remained was to choose a particular line from amongst many in the civil service. There, I had little hesitation in opting for the Foreign Service.
Do you have any other diplomats in your family?
Not in my immediate family. But we have had relatives from the extended family who have been diplomats, and posted abroad as Ambassadors and at other senior positions in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. Two of my cousins, senior to me in service, are also Ambassadors currently.
How do you look at Thailand today? Have you had any obstacles since you arrived?
I had never been to Thailand before, and it was a unique and pleasant experience setting foot in the Land of Smiles as the Ambassador of your country. From a personal and professional point of view, it has been smooth sailing ever since our arrival here. Thailand is a beautiful and friendly country, and we simply love it. The people here are so kind, open, respectful and welcoming. Settling down was easy. And very soon you get into the busy but quite absorbing and diverse lifestyle and work environment in Bangkok and Thailand.
Thailand and Pakistan are old friends and close partners. Our bilateral relations are excellent and growing. We see Thailand as an important country and a leading voice in SE Asia. It is an anchor of regional cooperation, widely appreciated for its objective and pragmatic policies. It has achieved commendable economic development and export potential. Like any other country, it also has its own set of challenges, which are for the Thai people and the leadership to address in a manner that is best for the country. The recent elections and formation of the new government should provide the way forward, based on popular will, political stability and maturity.
We have also witnessed the historic coronation of His Majesty King Rama X, manifesting a tremendous expression of love and respect by the Thai people towards their Monarch, and the sentiment of patriotism and unity that gears the Thai nation towards greater progress and prosperity.
Do you see any similarities between your country and Thailand?
I think we have a lot in common. In terms of policies and global outlook, Pakistan and Thailand have shared interest in peace and development and a strong commitment to regional and multilateral cooperation. We are keen supporters of the United Nations. We also work closely in a number of regional organisations and forums. We have a lot to share and learn from each other’s development experience, and to forge deeper partnership as we advance to the next stage of our development. Inclusive and sustainable growth is the priority of both countries. Thailand and Pakistan are strategically located in SE Asia and South Asia. This enables the two countries to be at the centre of major connectivity and infrastructure projects that promote development through regional and cross-regional economic cooperation and integration.
Interestingly there are many similarities in the social and cultural norms. Like the Thai people, Pakistanis are also known for their warmth and hospitality. You will feel at home while in Pakistan. As I see, the traditional family system and values including respect for elders are very strong in Thailand like in my country. You can also draw parallels in the lifestyles in urban and rural areas. The youth are attracted to music, art and fashion. Both nations are sports lovers and have produced great champions.
Many Thais are also aware of the historical linkage between our two countries and peoples rooted in the glorious Buddhist heritage of Pakistan dating back to the Gandhara Civilisation and prominent centres of Buddhist teaching and learning including UNESCO World Heritage sites of Taxila (Takshashila) and Takht-i-Bahi. I would like to invite our Thai friends to visit these and other Buddhist sites in greater numbers.
This brings me to another sector to which both Thailand and Pakistan pay a lot of importance and attention i.e. tourism. Similar to Thailand, Pakistan has a wide array of tourist attractions – from historical and cultural sites, serene towns to busy cosmopolitan cities, and the diverse landscape ranging from beautiful coasts, to unruffled deserts, fertile planes, to splendid valleys, lakes and breathtaking views of the highest mountains of the world. So for our Thai friends, there is a lot to experience and enjoy out there in Pakistan.
Do you have children? What age and where do they go to school?
We are blessed with three daughters. The eldest, Noorain, is a doctor of medicine in Pakistan having graduated this year. Nawal finished her High School last year here in Bangkok and has since joined Chulalongkorn University in its renowned Faculty of Arts. The youngest, Iman, will complete High School next year.
How do you look upon your work here? What does an average day look like?
Contrary to general perception, Bangkok is quite a busy station. There is a substantial agenda on the bilateral side comprising political, defence, economic, trade, education and culture, tourism and other areas that keep us engaged. Besides, we also take care of the year round multilateral work at UNESCAP. Then there is outreach to business community, civil society, media and academia, universities, as well as interaction with the Pakistani community. Evenings are often occupied by social gatherings, receptions and cultural events. And one has to take into account the Bangkok traffic in planning the day’s programme, which as you see from the above is a mix of various activities, all equally important.
As with every Ambassador, I assume you have some goals you really would like to reach/fulfil before you leave Thailand. What are they?
We are actually pursuing multiple objectives. On the political side, our aim is to strengthen the existing ties through engagement and visits at higher levels. We are also looking to revitalise the Joint Economic Commission. Security and Defence relations are being expanded through high-level visits and other cooperative endeavours including training and joint exercises. An overarching defence cooperation agreement is ready for signatures.
One of our top priorities is enhancement of trade and investment. Significant results have already been achieved with bilateral trade touching all time high of 1.68 billion $ in 2018 up from 1.5 billion in 2017. We organised Pakistan’s first-ever Single Country Exhibition in Bangkok in July last year. We are also negotiating a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, which we expect would be mutually beneficial in terms of expanding the trade volume and also addressing the current imbalance. The Embassy is promoting exchange of business delegations and awareness of opportunities in Pakistan to promote trade, investment and joint ventures.
Another goal that we have set for ourselves is to create greater awareness among the Thai people about the Buddhist heritage of Pakistan, and to have more and more Thai friends going to Pakistan for tourism. Summer, for example, is a good period to enjoy the mountainous northern regions of Pakistan with cooler temperatures and spectacular landscape. There is a large choice of places – Kaghan, Swat, Hunza, Gilgit, Chitral, Skardu, Astore, Neelum, Kamrat, Nagar, Naltar to name a few. We have also taken steps to facilitate travel by introducing visa on arrival for business and tourism. Recently we have launched the e-visa facility, wherein Thai people can obtain visas online. We expect this will lead to more Thais travelling to Pakistan.
Yes, we have been to many places in Thailand and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I don’t miss an opportunity to travel outside Bangkok. These visits, apart from the interaction with people, provide a useful perspective about the level of development, economic activity, special products, tourist attractions and culture of the area. Wherever we have gone, we have seen good infrastructure and services. The provincial administration system seems quite effective.
Have you been travelling around in Thailand?
Until now, your favourite destination in Thailand?
It is difficult to choose because all places are good and have something special about them. We have been to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Mae Sot, Phitsanulok, Buriram, Surin, Phetchaburi, Chumphon, Surat Thani, Songkhla, Trang, Krabi, Phang Nga, Phuket, Pattaya, Rayong and many other places. In destinations near to Bangkok I like Hua Hin and particularly Khao Yai. Ko Samui and Phuket are also worth going to again and again.
When you have a day off, what do you prefer to do? Do you have any special hobbies?
I like to spend time with my family. We either go out of Bangkok or roam around in the city, which has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment, culture and cuisine. Chatuchak market is a favourite spot of my wife. If I can sneak out for tennis or golf, I would gladly do so.
How many of your country folk are living in Thailand? When and why did Thailand become a desirable destination for your people?
There are around 5,000 Pakistanis in Thailand. Most of them are in business, especially trading, or jobs of different kinds. Many have been here for long time, others come for specific assignment periods such as with the UN and other international organisations or multinational companies. It is a very dynamic and enterprising community. I believe that among other reasons, business prospects, and Thailand’s position as a trading hub and regional headquarter of many organisations and companies attract expats.
Let me also add that there is also a large Thai Pakistani community, also known as Thai Pathans, who are Thai nationals of Pakistani origin and have been here for some generations now. Well integrated in Thai society, they are settled all over Thailand, and have gained prominence and made significant contributions in all walks of life. This is a unique linkage between the people of our two countries, which I greatly value.
Do your country and Thailand have any exchange programmes for students today?
Students from our two countries are pursuing education and training courses on both sides under different arrangements including technical assistance programmes, scholarships, grants and self-financing. TICA offers courses from time to time. Many Pakistani students come to study in Thailand, especially at AIT, on our own Government’s funding. Some others avail various kinds of scholarships via Thai universities. Many Thais have studied in Pakistan in the past, and this trend continues. A number of top-level public and private sector universities in Pakistan offer a wide range of programmes. We also offer courses in diplomacy, banking and public administration. I would like to see the number of students going up on both sides.
If you could choose your next destination, where would you like to go?
Not an easy question and there is no simple answer. In fact as part of Foreign Service, we should be prepared to serve anywhere. Every place is interesting and full of challenges and opportunities. Various factors are at play when it comes to postings such as past assignments, relevant expertise, vacancies available, personal preference, etc. I have so far served in Africa, America and now in Asia. I wonder if Europe is next.
Any memory from Thailand that you’d like to tell us, an awkward situation, a fun moment?
It has been a memorable time altogether. That is to be expected when you are in a lovely place and among friendly people. Travel to the provinces is an unforgettable experience. Every destination is unique. Services are great. Local handicrafts, traditions and culture are well projected. Entrepreneurship is remarkable. Language is sometimes a barrier, but interestingly, many things get done without the need for a real conversation in English. I fondly remember when on our way to Phuket, at the airport a person approached us, asked to see our passports and led us to a kiosk on the side. First I thought he must be some airport official. Soon I realised he was from a tour company, and in no time he had sold a tour package to us, which when I had time to check once we were in Phuket, was actually a very good package, and even if there were a chance to negotiate in English, we would not have obtained a better one. That also reflected on the integrity of the salesperson.There is one thing that I would like to specially mention that would be etched on my memory forever. When we arrived here in mid 2017 it was the period of mourning for His Majesty Late King Rama IX. The highest regard and the spontaneous outpouring of love, respect and admiration for the revered Monarch by the millions of Thai people was something really impressive and exceptional.
Do you regularly meet up with your community?
Yes, interaction with the community is quite frequent. In my view taking care of the interests and wellbeing of the community is one of the prime functions of diplomatic missions. Keeping in touch is essential for that. To attend to any issues or problems and to receive any suggestions or opinions we have a walk-in and open door policy at the Embassy. We also reach out and respond to the community through social media. There is also regular interaction with the major representative organisations of the community.
What do you believe is your most important task as Ambassador?
Ours is a multi-dimensional relationship with efforts directed on several fronts in parallel. My job is to build on the substantial work that has been done by my predecessors. In fact everything is important, from political to defence ties to people to people contacts. In terms of our overall goals, we have prioritised trade and economic relations, wherein we have made very good progress and that is something we would like to consolidate further. We would like more Thai business houses to invest in Pakistan. As I said earlier, another objective is to create greater awareness about Pakistan and to have more and more Thai people going to Pakistan for tourism, especially to the picturesque northern region and the famous Buddhist sites in Pakistan.
What else would you like the expat community to know about your efforts?
We are here to promote friendly ties between the two countries and generate further contacts and goodwill among the people. At the same time, we also look beyond the bilateral affairs. In this globalised world, there is ever increasing interconnectedness and inter-dependence. Bangkok itself is a hub of regional and multilateral activity. The large expat community in this country, the success they have enjoyed and the contributions they have made towards its development are manifestations of the positive impacts of globalisation and harmonious co-existence. As a democratic and progressive country, Pakistan is very much attached to this worldview. We are committed to promoting greater understanding and interaction between various cultures and civilisations for shared peace and prosperity for all. I see that as our collective effort for our common good.