LOCATED on the 16th floor of Sathorn City Tower, the Royal Belgium Embassy enjoys a bird’s-eye view of one of the city’s most interesting quarters and provided a stimulating environment for a lively interview with His Excellency Marc Michielsen, ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium.
Beginning with background information on Thai-Belgian relations, the ambassador displayed a quick wit and comprehensive knowledge of the subject throughout the conversation.
“The Belgian consulates in Manila and Singapore were the first to be established in the region. As early as 1835, the consuls there were instructed to travel to the Kingdom of Siam and establish links.
“Belgium was given the right to appoint consular representatives with jurisdiction over Belgian nationals in Siam. The treaty remained in effect until 1926, when it was replaced by a treaty between Siam and the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union.
“In 1884, Belgium established an honorary consulate in Bangkok. In 1888, a non-resident Belgian legation was created in Siam, with Léon Verhaeghe de Naeyer the first Belgian diplomat accredited to His Majesty the King of Siam. He was concurrently the minister of Belgium in Beijing.
“Diplomatic relations between our two kingdoms really took off with the establishment of a Belgian legation in Bangkok in 1904 and the designation of Leon Dossogne as resident Head of Mission. This contributed greatly to the development of commercial exchanges between our two countries,” explained Mr Michielsen.
“The first Belgian consulate was on Captain Bush Lane, close to New Road (on the present site of the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel). It was close to the river and to the British, French and Portuguese missions. The legation was later transferred to Silom Road, near what is now Soi 19.
“The Belgian Consul Marcel Polain moved into a rented a house on Soi Phipat on October 1, 1927. The house was used to accommodate the chancellery and to host dinners and receptions.
“In 1935, the Belgian government decided to buy the building on Soi Phipat, permitting the Belgian legation in Bangkok to enjoy a permanent and very suitable home. The offices moved outside the residence but stayed on the premises of Soi Phipat until the year 2000, when a modern embassy was opened in the Sathorn City Tower. In 2012 the embassy moved to a larger space in Sathorn Square, while the ambassador’s residence remains in the original building on Soi Phipat.
“Currently, we have 16 expats plus 15 locally recruited staff working at our embassy. Most of the Thai staff speaks English and French, and two local staff members speak Dutch. We want people who turn to our embassy to be able to speak in their own language.”
Mr Michielsen was born in 1959 in Mortsel, a lovely small town in the northern part of Belgium close to Antwerp. “My late father was a businessman in Antwerp. My mother is alive and 89 years old. She was a painter until she got married and devoted her life to raising her two children,” said the ambassador.
His resume easily places him in the ranks of the most experienced diplomats currently posted in Thailand. Since joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Brussels in 1989 he has served as Attaché, Permanent Representation to NATO (1991-1995); the MFA’s Directorate of Political-Military Affairs (1996-1997); First Secretary in Dublin, Ireland (1997-2001); First Secretary, Permanent Representation of Belgium to the European Union - Belgium EU Presidency of 2001 (Political and Security Committee); First Secretary and as Counselor/DHOM in Moscow (2002-2005) and Ambassador to Sofia, Bulgaria, FYROM, Albania and Kosovo as jurisdiction (2008-2012), his last foreign posting before coming to Thailand.
He has also taken on special assignments such as membership in the Belgian task force to prepare the International Conference of Brussels on the interdiction of anti-personnel landmines in 1997 and Director of Political Affairs of the taskforce in charge of the Belgian OSCE Chairmanship in 2006.
Holding a PhD in Political science, Mr Michielsen has published in scientific reviews as well as in newspapers and magazines. He is multilingual, conversant in French, Dutch, German and English since an early age. At university he added Spanish, Portuguese and Russian while posted in Moscow, he refreshed his Russian.
Mr Michielsen arrived in Thailand on August 31, 2012 to take the post of ambassador. He is also accredited to the Kingdom of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. The ambassador came to Thailand for the first time in 2008 as chief spokesperson of the Belgian MFA, accompanying former minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel De Gucht. “We spent about a day and a half in Bangkok and moved on to the next destination, but I was very aware of the special relationship with Thailand based on a rich bilateral history, a close relationship between the royal families of our countries and intense economic links.”
The tasks of an ambassador
“As ambassador I am the representative of His Majesty King Philippe of the Belgians in Thailand. My duties and responsibilities can be put under three headings: one, represent my country; two, defend the interests of my country; three, make known, improve and further develop the bilateral relations between our two countries.
“As the representative of the Belgian head of state, each time anything important takes place in the sphere of our bilateral relations, be it in the political, economic, cultural, scientific or educational field, I try to play a part in it. I am also present at a huge number of official events organized by the Thai government and the Thai Royal House. The national day celebrations are another type of event which, as an ambassador, you must attend.
“As for the second task, defending the interests of my country, I am talking here about interests in the widest sense. I think for example of improving the well-being of Belgian residents and tourists, facilitating Belgian businesses, lobbying for Belgian candidates to get them elected to international organizations and so forth.
“What concerns the third task, making known, improving and further developing the bilateral relations between our two countries, the building blocks of the bilateral relations between countries are of utmost importance. From an historic perspective I must stress that not every country with an embassy in Bangkok signed a treaty of friendship more than 145 years ago, established diplomatic relations more than 130 years ago and opened a diplomatic office 110 years ago.
“Besides these important dates there are other major building blocks, namely the excellent relations between our royal houses, the economic relations between our two countries, the never ending stream of people-to-people contacts in the social, educational and cultural fields and the presence of some emblematic figures and events that illustrate the unique nature of our relationship. I will limit myself to two examples, one of which is Gustave Rolin Jaecquemyns; the other the Belgian Thai Bridge.
“Mr Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns was the most renowned European advisor of King Rama V, and was appointed as General Advisor to the Siamese Crown from 1892 until 1901. He assisted the Thai government in modernizing and codifying the country’s laws. He served as an advisor on foreign affairs in a period of vastly expanding empires. His Majesty King Rama V elevated M Gustave to the rank of Chao Phya Abhai Raja. A bust of the most well known Belgian in Thailand was inaugurated in March 2013 by Their Royal Highnesses Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde.
“The Belgian Thai Friendship Bridge is the most famous hallmark of Belgium’s technical cooperation with Thailand, a fruitful result of a partnership between the Belgian Ministry of Public Works and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The bridge was built in 1988 in less than 24 hours and was the first fly-over in Bangkok.
“It was inaugurated in presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. In 2013 the bridge was modernized and the inauguration ceremony took place in presence of Their Royal Highnesses Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde.”
“In November 2001, the Belgian artist Rudi Pillen offered a unique painting called ‘The Travelers’ to the Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) of Thailand. The work, representing 204 people, impressively greets commuters at the entrance of the Thai Cultural Center MRTA station. It was the first work of art to compliment a MRTA station.
“Cultural diplomacy, as the example above shows, is another way to foster bilateral relations. We organized in March 2013 at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center the exhibition ‘Three Colors of Belgium,’ featuring three contemporary Belgian artists, Hugo Besard, Christian Develter and Niki Kokkinos. The exhibition was opened by her Royal Highness Princess Mathilde.
“Jef Neve, one of the most promising Belgian jazz musicians, performed in the presence of Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde. Silpakorn University invited Belgian flautist Marc Brauwels on July 4, 2014 for a concert at the auditorium of the Pridi Phanomyong Institute in Bangkok. The embassy did not have to think twice to support this initiative.
“I am also very proud that in 2013 I could bring Belgian composer, pianist and vocalist Wim Mertens to the concert hall of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok to celebrate a double anniversary: 145 years treaty of friendship and 130 years of diplomatic relations.
“Wim Mertens is one of the most famous cultural ambassadors of Belgium. On October 28, 2014 he will perform ‘Voice of the Living’ at an international World War I commemoration in the Belgian city Ypres.
“This year we celebrate 110 years of Belgian diplomatic presence in Thailand and the embassy will organize several activities. We are working on two publications: a booklet on the 110 years of Belgian diplomatic presence here another on the Belgian Thai Friendship Bridge. In addition, we will have an exhibition coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adophe Sax, the Belgian inventor of the saxophone, and with four partners in three cities (Bangkok, Hua Hin and Phuket), we will organize a Belgian Food Marathon.
“The official celebration of our 110 years will take place on 25th September 2014 with a gala concert by the Belgian classical guitar duo of Raphaella Smits and Adrien Brogna. Raphaella Smits is a guitar phenomen, revered in ‘guitar-minded’ countries like Argentina, Russia and Japan.
“My first task upon arrival in August 2012 was to plan and organize a trade mission presided over by HRH Prince Philippe which from March 17 to 22, 2013 brought about 100 Belgian companies, 150 business people and a total of 200 participants to Bangkok. Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders took part in the mission and signed with his Thai counterpart a Belgian-Thai Joint Action Plan in order to strengthen our bilateral relations and to pursue a strategic partnership.
“In 2013 we reached an export value of US$1.8 billion in our trade with Thailand. The export value of Thailand to Belgium was even bigger. Belgium is Thailand’s fifth largest EU trading partner. One must take into account that we are a country of 11 million people. So proportionally, in a manner of speaking, we are the number one European trading partner of Thailand. The message I always try to convey is that Belgium has everything to be the central hub and the number one partner for Thailand in Europe.
“Exports from Belgium to Thailand increased in 2013 by 5.7%. These are mainly chemical products, precious stones including diamonds, metals, machinery and equipment and plastics. Exports from Thailand to Belgium mainly consist of machinery and equipment, precious stones, metals, plastics and transport materials.
“Major Belgian companies present in Thailand are Katoen Natie, Magotteaux, Tractebel, Inve and Solvay. Most have been active here for more than 20 years. Solvay recently announced that it will build Southeast Asia’s largest sodium bicarbonate plant in Thailand. This investment demonstrates the country is an attractive and strategic place to invest in for Belgian firms.
“Besides the mayor players quite a lot of small and medium sized enterprises are present in Thailand. Last but not least, we have the Thai companies that import Belgian products and that have established excellent relations with their Belgian partners.
People to people
“In 2013, approximately 5,300 Thai citizens visited Belgium on a short-term basis (this number includes visits for tourism, family and business purposes). To attract more Thai tourists to Belgium we organized in August 2014 in the Belgian residence a presentation for a selection of Thai tour operators and journalists. Some 3,800 Thai people live in Belgium.
“The number of Belgian tourists who came to Thailand amounted to 92,250 in 2013. Thailand is one of the most popular Asian holiday destinations for Belgians.
“A total of 2,483 Belgian citizens are registered at the Belgian Embassy in Thailand, though the number of Belgians residing here on a long-stay basis is probably a good bit higher, but no accurate estimate can be provided.
“In 2011, Thai Airways started direct flights between Bangkok and Brussels. Two years later, Thai Airways and Brussels Airlines - both members of Star Alliance - concluded a codeshare agreement to reinforce each other. Since the launch of the flight the Embassy of Belgium in Bangkok has observed a steady increase in the number of visa applications.
“In Thailand my main travel destinations are the places where we have economic interests. Rayong and the Eastern Sea Board figure high on my list. I have been to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, as well as Hua Hin and Phuket, where EU meetings took place concerning the situation of European tourists in Thailand.
“Professionally, I also often travel to Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw, Phnom Penh and Vientiane,” said Mr Michielsen.
Asked why his country has not an embassy in each country in Southeast Asia, he replied: “There are three criteria to open an embassy. The presence of a Belgian expat population, people to people contacts and trade flows. Once certain thresholds are reached we will consider opening an embassy.”
“As a diplomat you have a unique chance to live in different countries and to develop in-depth knowledge of the countries and nearby regions. I use my leisure time to explore Thailand. Besides that, I love good food and fine wines. I have broad cultural interests, particularly in music, modern dance, art and architecture. I read mainly nonfiction. When it comes to sports, jogging, swimming, tennis and golf are my favorites.” The ambassador is happily married to French artist Marie Chantal Biéla.
He described himself as a “big fan of Thai food” and noted that this probably has a lot to do with the fact that most Belgians know the excellent Thai cuisine thanks to the Blue Elephant restaurant. “But even when I’m not eating such gastronomic masterpieces as are produced in that Thai-Belgian joint venture, I am always positively surprised by the high quality of Thai cuisine. I would like to add that good food is as important to Belgians as it is to Thais. Hence, I am happy to work in Thailand.”
THE Thai and Belgian royal families have entertained a longstanding relationship.
The first royal visit was in 1897, when King Chulalongkorn travelled to Europe and was welcomed in Belgium by
King Leopold II. Other visits by Thai royalty to Belgium took place in 1920, 1924, 1929, 1930 and 1934.
In 1932, Belgian Crown Prince Leopold and Princess Astrid, the Duke and the Duchess of Brabant, visited Siam and were granted an audience with King Prachadhipok.
In 1960, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit paid a visit to Belgium. The Thai royal couple was welcomed by King Baudouin and visited major parts of Belgium from Brussels to Bruges. King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola visited Thailand in 1964.
In February 2001 and in March 2013 Crown Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde presided over a trade mission to Thailand. Both times, they were granted an audience with HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In June 2006 they also took part in the 60th anniversary celebration of the King’s accession to the Throne.