Pakistan’s Ambassador talks about the long links between the two countries and the path ahead
FOR more than half a century, the center for Pakistani affairs in Thailand has been the Pakistani embassy compound on Sukhumvit Soi 3, close to the area known as “Little Arabia” due to its popularity with visitors from the Middle East and local Muslim residents.
The 25-strong staff, which includes both Pakistani and Thai officials, has a close attachment to the embassy because of its long-time central role, explains Mr. Sohail Mahmood, Pakistan’s ambassador to Thailand, who adds that its central location also makes its easily accessible for visitors and Pakistani nationals seeking consular advice or assistance.
“We’ve had this place for our diplomatic mission here since the 1950s. Previously there was a smaller house which contained the embassy, but a few years back the old structure was demolished and replaced with new buildings,” said the ambassador.
The Ambassador’s background
Born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Mr. Mahmood received his early schooling as well as university education there. For further studies, he attended Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, one of the capital’s major universities. Completing a master’s degree in history in 1985, he joined the Foreign Service of Pakistan as a career diplomat.
“Earlier overseas assignments were in Ankara, Turkey, Washington DC and New York. The assignment in New York was with Pakistan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. I was part of the Pakistani delegation to the UN Security Council in 2003-2004.”
At the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, Mr. Mahmood served in the South Asia, South West Asia and the Americas divisions. The posting to Thailand is his first stint in Southeast Asia and his first as an ambassador.
“My last assignment before becoming ambassador was as director general in the Foreign Secretary Office. In that capacity, it was my duty to provide substantive support to the Foreign Secretary as he handled the myriad aspects related to Pakistan’s foreign relations.
“I came to Thailand for the first time in May 2009, on my way back from Hanoi after attending an ASEM Ministerial meeting. It was a one-day trip but it left a deep impression on me of Thailand’s economic dynamism, as well as the culture, vibrancy and friendly atmosphere of Bangkok.
“The second time I came here was in October 2009, when I arrived as ambassador. In Bangkok, I wear two hats: One as ambassador to Thailand, and the other as permanent representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP).
“As ambassador, my main focus is on the further development and strengthening of Pakistani-Thai relations in all their myriad dimensions – including political, trade, investment, defense, education, culture, and people-to-people exchanges. Therefore, close coordination is needed with people in government, parliament, the business sector, civil society and educational and cultural institutions. Close liaison with the media as well as the Pakistani community is also part of the job.
“At UNESCAP, which has its headquarters in Bangkok, the focus of my activities is to help promote the organization’s important economic and social development agenda for the vast Asia-Pacific region. Twice during the annual UNESCAP Commission sessions, in 2011 and 2012, I have had the privilege of leading the Working Group on Draft Resolutions, which steered the finalization of key resolutions dealing with a broad range of issues,” explained Mr. Mahmood.
“Most days I have meetings both inside and outside the embassy. We have a lot of interaction with our counterparts in various Thai government departments whether via phone or personal meetings. There is also a lot of interaction with the private sector, civil society and of course the Pakistani community in Thailand.
“I follow events in Thailand and abroad as this is an essential part of being an ambassador. I try to understand developments here to get a deeper insight into matters that are of interest to Islamabad. My staff and I communicate these developments along with our assessments [to the Foreign Ministry]. Then there are developments taking place in the region that we also have to be on top of. Pakistan is very interested in enhancing its relationship with ASEAN.”
Mr. Mahmood enjoys travelling outside of Bangkok, both officially and privately, but he doesn’t have the chance as often as he’d like because the level of official diplomatic activities in Bangkok is so high.
“Pakistan and Thailand established diplomatic relations in October 1951, so we have just completed 60 years of diplomatic ties. This milestone was celebrated in a befitting manner by the organization of a series of events in both countries. This process is actually still underway; we recently had an exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). That was followed by a seminar held in collaboration of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, titled ‘Six Decades of Thailand-Pakistan Friendship: Towards Building an Economic Partnership.’
“This year, we are also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the state visit of Their Majesties King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit to Pakistan (in 1962). A number of initiatives have been taken to commemorate that landmark visit, including the issuance of special postal stamps by Pakistan Post and Thailand Post.
“The Pakistani diplomatic mission initially began with a legation at the charge d’affaires level in Bangkok, which was later upgraded to full embassy status. The first ambassador arrived in 1956. The Thai Embassy in Pakistan was established in Karachi, which was Pakistan’s capital at the time (before Islamabad was built).
“Although the diplomatic relationship between Pakistan and Thailand spans more than six decades, in terms of civilization the two countries and peoples
have been connected for over 2,000 years. Pakistan is a proud inheritor of the Buddhist Gandhara civilization, which flourished in major cities like Peshawar, Swat, Takht-e-Bai. Taxila, known in Thai consciousness as the center of knowledge in the ancient world, is about a one-hour drive from Islamabad and remains a crucial cultural link between the two countries.
“Over the past 60 years, Pakistan and Thailand have enjoyed cordial ties marked by mutual trust and understanding as well as close cooperation. The two countries were allies in the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Our multifaceted relations also encompass security, defense, science and technology, education, culture and people-to-people contacts.
“Within the framework of Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy and Pakistan’s ‘Vision East Asia’ policy, which are complementary and mutually reinforcing, we can forge win-win cooperation on the vast opportunities before us.
“There has been a long-standing tradition of high-level visits between Pakistan and Thailand. The most important of these exchanges has been the landmark 12-day state visit of Their Majesties to Pakistan in March 1962. HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has paid three separate visits to Pakistan.
“Recently, in March 2012, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited Pakistan as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations. Other high-level visits include that of General Prem Tinsulanonda in 1983 as the Prime Minister of Thailand. In 2002, Prime Minister Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra paid a visit to Pakistan.
“On the Pakistani side, former president Gen. Zia ul Haq visited Thailand in 1987. Subsequently, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz made official visits.
“Consistent with this tradition, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has been invited to visit to Pakistan.
“Along with strengthening political ties, the two countries have been engaged in efforts to expand trade and investment. In 2011, bilateral trade exceeded US$1 billion. Both sides are conscious that a huge potential still remains to be tapped. Thailand’s CP Group recently signed a MoU on investment facilitation.
“The trade balance heavily favors Thailand, with over $800 million in exports to Pakistan, but we are working on ways to increase the volume of trade the other way. We are also seeking ways of enhancing trade liberalization measures for the benefit of both countries.
“Thailand exports a wide range of products to Pakistan, with auto parts being the main export. Others include everything from plastics and chemicals to light machinery to sugar, and the scope is increasing. Our main exports to Thailand are textiles, fishery and seafood items, gems and jewelry and then smaller things like handicrafts. But there is a lot of room for further development and enhancement of trade and economic activity in infrastructure, energy and in food processing and textiles.
“As for investment, there are many Pakistanis who have set up small and medium businesses in Thailand, and there are a number of Thai companies operating in Pakistan, some in joint ventures. But again, we believe much more can be done bilaterally in this sphere.
“This year we have been focused on two major events in our bilateral relationship. The first is, of course, the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, so a whole range of events and activities were organized, including the issuance of postal stamps, photographic exhibition, presentation of books, cultural performances and so on. The other is the 50th anniversary of the 1962 state visit of Their Majesties.
“We have linkages in sports like boxing, golf, field hockey and tennis. Last year one of our tennis players, teaming up with an Austrian player, won the Thailand Open doubles final here in Bangkok. We often have junior teams visiting here for field hockey and soccer. Thai snooker players often go to competitions in Pakistan.
“The number of tourists is increasing both ways. Pakistanis visiting Thailand must be upward of 70,000 per year. Although the number of Thais visiting Pakistan is much less, but it is going up.
“Thais are going to Pakistan mostly for business, but also for mountaineering in the northern part of the country, where we have some of the world’s highest peaks. Then many Thais like to travel to my country to witness the Buddhist Gandhara heritage. They go to Peshawar, Taxila or to Lahore, where there are artifacts from the Naraperiod and archaeological sites of that civilization.’’
When visiting Pakistani nationals face difficulties the embassy comes to their assistance and tries to coordinate with the Thai authorities, according to the nature of the case.
“They may be victims of some kind of scam, or make a mistake such as overstaying their visa. Of course there are also sometimes Pakistani criminal elements coming here, so it is always a mixed story. But again, we will coordinate with the Thai authorities based on the merits of the case.”
Mr. Mahmood commented that his embassy has always received good cooperation from Thai law enforcement agencies and other authorities.
“We have several thousand Pakistani nationals who are either engaged in their own businesses, are employed for multi-national companies or otherwise in the corporate sector. There is also a fairly large number of Thais of Pakistani origins. Many are now second or third generation. The number is estimated to be about 100,000, and they form an important bridge between the two countries.
“Quite a few Thai families live in Pakistan but it is hard to give an exact number.”
Mr. Mahmood said the Pakistani government felt a strong solidarity with the people of Thailand during the floods last year. “We ourselves faced massive floods in 2010 and 2011 and were overwhelmed by the response we received from Thailand. So when Thailand faced massive flooding, our leadership immediately conveyed its support. The government of Pakistan sent flood assistance and the embassy tried to support relief activities within our means.
“Thailand is an important country in the region. It represents a very rich culture and is inhabited by very friendly people, so whoever comes in contact with Thai people will invariably have a pleasant experience.
“Its cultural richness also attracts a lot of people. Visitors feel welcome here and I think that this is part of the reason why everybody has a good relationship with Thailand.
“The working environment is good. Thailand has invested a lot in infrastructure so the road system and telecommunications, for instance, operate on a high level. On the other side, the weather and the traffic can sometimes get you down.”
The visit of Princess Sirindhorn to Pakistan in March 2012 as part of 60th anniversary celebrations is a personal highlight for Mr Mahmood, who accompanied the Thai royal on her travels to Islamabad, Taxila, Peshavar and Lahore.
“As for my biggest achievement as ambassador, I think it’s the steady and balanced growth of bilateral relations in all fields of common interest during the past three years. Also, I believe Thailand’s consistent support for enhanced partnership between Pakistan and ASEAN is of great importance as well,” the ambassador said.
“As for disappointments, the first is that I am not yet a good golfer! Seriously, I wouldn’t say there have been any real disappointments, but there are certain areas where we would like to progress more quickly. For instance, trade liberalization between the two countries, which I would like to move at a faster pace because of the mutual benefits.
On the media
The ambassador believes that media reports on Pakistan in the Thai press is “balanced” but adds: “A lot of reporting is based on international news agencies, and the international media has its own focus and priorities. This is something all countries must deal with. In every country there are good and bad developments, but focusing on the negatives all the time is never helpful. So our expectation is that all media sources should take reports from our own media.”
A personal note
The ambassador and his wife Mahwish Sohail Mahmood have three children, two daughters and one son, and all are at school here in Bangkok. “My wife helps me with the diplomatic work and as the spouse of a diplomat she usually has a lot of participation in social aspects such as entertaining.
“In my free time, first and foremost I like to spend as much time as possible with my family. Other ways of relaxing include travelling, reading books (mostly history and biographies) and meeting interesting people. Whenever I have the time, I like to play golf but I am a beginner.
“I like to visit old book stores to find good reading material and to add to my personal collection.
“The normal term of duty is three years which, in my case, will be up at the end of this year. So we will see what Islamabad will decide for us. It may be an extension here or it may be relocation,” the ambassador noted.