Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
“I am already 64 years old and our mandatory retirement age is 65.”
I was born and raised in Manila and went to a Catholic school run by nuns– Saint Rita College for elementary and part of high school. My father, who worked for the Philippine Atomic Energy Commission, was seconded by the Philippine government in 1969 to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, where I finished high school at the American International School. My parents, older sister and I were all in Vienna. I am the youngest in the family. My elder brother was at that time studying in the United Kingdom. After high school I continued my studies in Germany and the UK. Having lived in Austria and Germany, I had the opportunity to learn the German language. Regrettably, I have not spoken the language for so long, but I hope to pick it up again,” said the ambassador.
“In those years abroad I was exposed to many new things. While studying at the international school I became interested in meeting people from different backgrounds and in international organizations. At the university, I took courses in international relations to prepare myself for a career where I could be of service to my country and our people, and at the same time have the opportunity to meet people from different countries.”
After passing the Foreign Service Officers’ Examinations, Ms Bernardo-Aragon joined the Department of Foreign
Affairs in Manila in 1979, where over the years she held a number of important positions. As she had hoped, her profession has also allowed her to spend a lot of time abroad. She represented her country for a number of years in Brussels and also saw extensive duty on the other side of the Atlantic, first in New York City with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and then in Los Angeles with the Philippine General Consulate there.
“My very first posting abroad was as Third Secretary and Vice-Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Brussels in 1982, dealing with our bilateral relations with Belgium and Luxembourg. In 1985, the Philippine embassy and Philippine Mission to the Commission of the European Community were merged. At that time, our overseas postings were for eight years, which were reduced to six years by the Philippine Foreign Service Act in 1991. Then we return to Manila to serve in the Home Office for two or three years before we become eligible for another posting abroad,” said the ambassador. Her last position before coming to Thailand was in Manila for three years as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Internal Audit Services.
“I am not an accountant, nor a lawyer, so I had to have some training for that job. Establishing offices of internal audit in different government agencies, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, was a part of the government’s anti-corruption measures. My office reported directly to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.”
When she became eligible for a new overseas posting in 2015 and expressed interest in the Bangkok post, she was greatly honored when the President of the Philippines appointed her to her current position. “All ambassadorial appointments need to be confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, which is made up of members from both houses of Congress, 12 from the Senate and 12 from the House of Representatives. The Commission is chaired by the President of the Senate. There are hearings and then they vote on confirmation. This is a part of the constitution that was put in place in 1987 when we returned to democracy.”
While Ms Bernardo-Aragon was elated with her eventual confirmation, she had to deal with a great personal loss at that time. “I had planned to bring my mother with me here. But unfortunately, before I could do so, she passed away in September 2015. My father passed away in 2003.”
“I came to Thailand for the first time in July 1971. My father was then on leave from his UN job in Vienna, and he took the family to Bangkok for three days while enroute to Manila. I cannot recall the hotel where we stayed, but I do remember that Bangkok looked very different then than it is today. The international airport at that time was Don Muang. We went to the floating market, the Grand Palace and visited temples. We also had some clothes made here.
“I visited Thailand for a second time in 1981. As a junior officer, I was one of three officials from Manila who were sent to attend a seminar for young ASEAN diplomats. It was held at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency. The third time I visited Thailand was in April 2014, when I attended a meeting of the High-Level Task Force on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and Reviewing the ASEAN Organs as the Philippine Representative.”
Upon entering the main embassy building, it is hard to miss the framed photos on the wall of all past Philippine envoys to Thailand. “Out of the past 14 Philippine Ambassadors to Thailand, four were women career diplomats. Upon completion of my tour of duty here, it will be my distinct honor to be included in the gallery of ambassadors as the 5th woman career diplomat.
“We established formal diplomatic relations on 14 June 1949 with the signing of the Treaty of Friendship in Washington D.C. by His Royal Highness Prince Wan Waithayakon and Mr Joaquin Elizalde, Philippine Ambassador to the United States of America. This year will be a milestone year for us as we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries,” said the ambassador.
“Moreover, we expect the embassy to be kept busy this year in assisting our delegations to the numerous ASEAN meetings and events that will be held in Thailand during its chairmanship of ASEAN. We support Thailand’s theme of Advancing Partnership for Sustainability, anchored on the notion that our ASEAN Community should be people-centered and leave no one behind on the path to sustainable development and prosperity. This is consistent with the advocacy on the part of the Philippines within ASEAN to promote the benefits of community-building to all citizens of ASEAN, especially the marginalized, even prior to the adoption of ASEAN Charter which established the three community pillars.
“We have always said in the Philippines that our people are our greatest resource, and we wanted that to be true for the larger ASEAN Community as well. That is why we pushed for the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion on the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007, during the 12th ASEAN Summit in Cebu. We followed this through in 2017 during our ASEAN chairmanship when we led efforts towards the adoption of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion on the Rights of Migrant Workers.
“On a more mundane level,” the ambassador continued, “we are always mindful of translating our international and regional advocacies to better serve overseas Filipinos. Hence, a big part of our mandate here is to provide consular services and assistance to Filipino nationals. Most of our nationals come to the embassy for passport renewal. In 2017, the validity of Philippine passports was extended from a period of five years to ten years. Others come for consular documentation for various matters, including a certificate of legal capacity to marry which need verification from concerned Philippine authorities in Manila. Officiating marriages between Filipino nationals abroad is part of the regular function of the consul-general. Filipino parents are also required to file a report of birth of their children so that they can be recognized as Philippine citizens.
“In spite of a lean staff complement at the embassy, we also conduct consular outreach missions in various parts of Thailand throughout the year as well as provide assistance to our nationals on weekends and holidays. Most of the Filipinos working in Thailand are teachers, while some work in hotels in Pattaya, Phuket and other tourist places. There are also a number of Filipino students in the Kingdom.”
As ambassador tasked to represent her country and promote good relations with the host country and others, this means attending many functions such as national day celebrations, meetings with government officials, business leaders, NGOs and so forth, as well as planning and staging various events. The ambassador is quite impressed by the trips for diplomats organized by various Royal Thai Government ministries to other parts of the country such as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Udon Thani, and Isan, among others. These trips provide an excellent opportunity to meet with the governors and other important provincial officials and people from the private sector, as well as those involved in the Royal Projects.
“I particularly like Chiang Rai, where we visited the Doi Tung Development Project and had a dialogue with the local community. In addition to trips organized by the Royal Thai Government, I also like to visit other places outside of Bangkok as an ordinary tourist, especially when family members are visiting here.”
“While trade between our two countries has been increasing, the trade balance has been in favor of Thailand for several years now,” said the ambassador. According to statistics from the Thai Ministry of Commerce, total trade between the two countries was US$10.18 billion in 2017, with a surplus of US$3.68 billion on the Thai side. In 2017 the Philippines was Thailand’s 10th most important export destination, and 18th in terms of supplying imports to Thailand.
Some products imported by Thailand from the Philippines are computer parts and accessories, electrical machinery and parts, electronic integrated circuits, plastic products, and parts and accessories for vehicles. Some products exported by Thailand are automobiles and accessories, electronic integrated circuits, polymers of ethylene, chemical and plastic products, automatic data processing machines and parts, and rice.
“The Philippines’ economic growth rate has been quite good for a while, and the government’s massive infrastructure program is setting the stage for even higher growth rates in the next decade. In 2000-2009 the average GDP growth rate was 4.5%; in 2010-2017 it was 6.4% and in 2017 the growth rate was 6.7%. From 2010 to 2016, government spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP averaged 2.9%. We expect to see this rise to 7.0% in 2022 as the government completes the US$180 billion infrastructure program started in 2017.
“The Philippines has recently opened three new airport terminals in quick succession. These are the main gateway to Palawan Island, in May 2017; the Central Philippines hub of Cebu, in June 2018; and the new international terminal for the resort destination of Bohol, in November 2018. A new terminal at Clark International is now under construction.” Philippine tourism is also on an upward trajectory. Last year, the Philippines welcomed 7.1 million tourists, an increase of 8% from 2017. “I would therefore like to invite our friends here in Thailand to come and visit my country. The Philippines has 7,107 islands. While not all of the islands are inhabited, one can find a variety of attractions to be seen and experienced in many of a large number of islands.
“There are many beautiful natural land formations in the Philippines, such as the Mayon Volcano in the Bicol Region, which has a perfect cone shape. There are more than a thousand Chocolate Hills in Bohol, which turn brown during the dry season. There are many mountains and volcanoes, which are suitable for hiking.
“Mount Apo, with the highest peak in the Philippines, is located between North Cotabato and Davao. Other famous peaks and trails include Pico de Loro in Batangas, Mount Pulag in Luzon and Mount Kanlaon in Negros province.
“The Philippines also has many famous beaches and diving spots. One of the most popular would be Boracay in Western Visayas. Coron and El Nido, both in Palawan, are also very popular. Visitors who like undersea creatures can watch or swim with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu. Siargao in Surigao del Norte is famous for its waves, and attracts surfing enthusiasts.”
The ambassador said that having lived in several places in Europe for a decade before joining the foreign service has helped her adapt to life in different postings. “I adjusted easily to life in Bangkok because of the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people – something we have in common. Considering that Thailand is in mainland Southeast Asia while the Philippines is in archipelagic Southeast Asia, our similarities as a people are rather remarkable. It has been a joy to discover convergences even in our respective cuisines, and our shared belief that eating is a way of life rather than just a mere necessity.
“Filipinos and Thais both love pork, for instance, whether in the form of jerky (moo dad daew in Thai and tocino in Filipino) or grilled in sticks (moo ping in Thai and pork barbecue in Filipino). Then there is the ubiquitous fish sauce (nam pla in Thai and patis in Filipino), that adds an umami zest to our meals. Even the world famous Thai mango with sticky rice has a Filipino equivalent manga, suman at latik – which transports an older generation of Filipinos to idyllic childhood memories of family breakfasts and afternoon meriendas.
“I enjoy the abundance of fruits and vegetables here as well as many different international cuisines that are readily available. Bangkok is a very interesting and cosmopolitan capital city. One can find almost everything here, and there are so many events taking place all the time. The embassy has been participating in the YWCA and the Red Cross bazaars as well as in the annual Thai Silk Celebration, where Oliver Tolentino, a Filipino fashion designer based in Los Angeles, showcased his collections in December 2018. I was fortunate to have known Oliver when I was posted in LA as Consul General. He also has an office in Metro Manila.
“I hardly travel back to the Philippines for a vacation in view of my work schedule. However, the government occasionally requires me to travel to Manila for official matters such as during the Philippine Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017.
“To relax, I just like to have some time off to be by myself, either to make a stroll in one of the malls or just do some walking somewhere interesting. I must confess that there are still many places in Bangkok I have never been to, maybe because I am unable to speak the language, which is quite a challenge for me to learn even after three years. But I do find the people here friendly, and they are always willing to help, like when I go on the BTS Skytrain and ask for directions.”
At that point the buzzing of a mobile phone seemed to suggest the time allotted for the interview in another busy day was about up. The ambassador added a final thought: “When I joined the foreign service, there were no mobile phones and no internet, only telex machines and ‘normal’ telephones. Now we can be reached anytime and anywhere.”
CV of H.E. Mary Jo A. Bernardo-Aragon
• 1959-1966: Elementary - Saint Rita College, Manila.
• 1966-1969: High School - Saint Rita College, Manila.
• 1969-1971: American International School, Vienna, Austria.
• 1971-1975: Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science Schiller College, Bonnigheim, Germany & London, UK.
• 1975-1977: Diploma in International Affairs, University of London.
Positions at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila:
• 1979-1980: Principal Assistant, Office of Policy Planning.
• 1980-1982: Acting Chief, Research Division, Office of Policy Planning, 1982: Acting Executive Director, Office of Policy Planning.
• 1990-1991: Director, Division 1, Office of European Affairs.
• 1991-1992: Executive Director, Office of Policy Planning & Coordination.
• 1992-1994: Special Assistant, Office of the Undersecretary for Administration.
• 2001-2005: Special Assistant, Office of the Undersecretary for Administration.
• 2005-2006: Chief of Staff, Office of the Secretary.
• 2012-2015: Assistant Secretary, Office of Internal Audit Service.
Positions at the Philippine Foreign Service:
• 1982-1984: Third Secretary & Vice-Consul, Philippine Embassy, Brussels, Belgium.
• 1984-1986: Second Secretary & Consul, Philippine Embassy, Brussels.
• 1986-1989: First Secretary & Consul, Philippine Embassy & Philippine Mission to the Commission of the European Community, Brussels.
• 1989-1990: First Secretary & Consul General, Philippine Embassy & Philippine Mission to the Commission of the European Community, Brussels.
• 1994-1999: Minister Counsellor, Philippine Mission to the United Nations, New York, U.S.A.
• 1999-2000: Minister, Philippine Mission to the UN, New York.
• 2000-2001: Deputy Permanent Representative, Philippine Mission to the UN, New York.
• 2006-2007: Deputy Consul General & Acting Head of Post, Philippine Consulate General, Los Angeles, USA.
• 2007-2012: Consul General, Philippine Consulate General, Los Angele