Getting to know you

Like the song Getting To Know You from the popular musical ‘The King and I’ it’s time for Britain and Thailand “to get reacquainted”, says its new Ambassador to London Mr Pisanu Suvanajata (who enjoys a karaoke sing-along of all popular musicals).

Although the first official contact between the two kingdoms dates back more than 400 years, Pisanu admits the British-Thai diplomatic relationship has been on a backburner over the past few decades.

“We can rediscover each other,” says the Ambassador. “I’ve been wondering, once the UK is not part of the EU, what will be our relationship with the UK? And I think it will be more constructive and more substantive.”

There is already mutual affection between the constitutional monarchies and peoples: millions of Brits flock to Thailand’s sun-drenched beaches and Bangkok’s shopping emporia, while shopaholic Thais throng Oxford Street department stores, dine in Michelin-starred restaurants and are obsessed with Premiership football.

But this affection only scratches the surface, says the Ambassador. “We have to raise awareness. We love each other but we don’t know enough about each other.”

Speaking ahead of the Thailand-UK Strategic Dialogue this coming January, which has now been upgraded to ministerial level, the Ambassador hopes talks will invigorate cooperation which has been held back by political events in Thailand.

Wide-ranging reforms
The Royal Thai government is now undertaking wide-ranging measures to reform, he points out. “We have had the new constitution which will lead to a general election next November. The constitution addresses specific issues, particularly human rights, public interest, transparency of government and the administration so that we have a legal framework that would allow Thailand to move forward.”

Bridging the divide between the poorer rural communities and the wealthy urban centres is also key to political stability. The government has embarked on an ambitious infrastructure programme connecting Thailand with high-speed trains, explains the Ambassador. There is also the ‘digital development’ programme, which will bring free, high-speed internet connectivity to all 70,000 of Thailand’s rural villages by 2020. “The idea for that is to close the social gap because we have firm conviction that our people, if they have opportunities and mechanisms, will be able to better their livelihoods.”

This all forms part of the Thailand 4.0 policy, explains the Ambassador. “In essence it is the determination to change the macroeconomic structure from export-led, labour-intensive industries to a high-value and innovation economy so that we can escape the Middle Income Trap. To achieve this we need good partners, expertise, skills, education and training. Britain is a global leader in innovation and technology so who else can assist us if not the British?”

British-Thai education links go way back to when King Rama V sent his sons for an education in Britain and since then Thai students have been coming to the UK. But the two countries want to deepen those ties, with more skills training and trans-national education.

“These policies are starting to bear fruit,” says Pisanu, adding that Thailand has leapt up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings from 46 to 26 out of 190 countries. It has also edged ahead two places in the competitiveness league from 34 to 32. Economic growth, which was lagging behind its turbo-charged neighbours, is catching up fast too.

Post-brexit opportunities
So in a post-Brexit era, it may be time to revive the liberalisation of trade. Thailand’s position at the heart of east-west trade routes, with access to the large ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), makes a British-Thai free trade agreement an attractive option, says the Ambassador, who is an expert on the region, having served for a decade in the East Asian Affairs division of the Thai foreign ministry as well as Consul General in China’s economic powerhouse, Guangzhou.

Maritime cooperation is important too as Thailand’s territorial waters straddle the Indian and Pacific oceans and the world’s busiest shipping lanes, which is why retaining its seat on the IMO Council was so important, he adds.

But being on a busy land and sea trade routes exposes Thailand to security risks, such as the trade in illicit goods, from human trafficking to narcotics, he adds. For this reason the Ambassador wants to deepen security, intelligence and defence ties with Britain. “We need to have comprehensive cooperation on security not only the joint exercises which is just military-to-military.”

Thailand may also be a partner to help solve thorny regional issues such as the treatment of the Rohingya refugees. Having served as Ambassador in Myanmar prior to this posting, he says the key lies in cooperation between Myanmar and Bangladesh with international concerted efforts. For Thailand, as an immediate neighbour, it can offer development assistance and advice on interfaith dialogue to alleviate intercommunal tensions.

“Ultimately the problem of this group of this stateless people is the legacy of colonial era when borders did not exist, so Britain has a role to play too,” he says.

Clearly the two countries are only just beginning scope out their partnership as they stand poised at the start of a new future. Getting To Know You will have to be a permanent fixture on Ambassador Pisanu’s Karaoke playlist.

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Ambassador of Thailand on 23 November