By Maxmilian Wechsler
THE appointment of His Excellency Anil Wadhwa as the new Indian Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand is one of many reasons the historically robust relations between the two countries seems set to flourish further.
“I want to improve the relationship between India and Thailand in all spheres, especially on the economic side, and to make sure the standing in the society of the Indians here is improved and always kept high,” said the seasoned diplomat.
The 55-year-old who began his ambassadorial duties here last November has been a member of the Indian Foreign Service since July 1979. He holds a master’s degree in history and is fluent in spoken and written Chinese, English, French and Hindi. Since coming to the Kingdom he has taken Thai lessons whenever his busy schedule permits.
Among his many diplomatic postings are stints as Third Secretary in the Commission of India, Hong Kong (1981-1983); First Secretary (Disarmament) at the Permanent Mission of India in Geneva (1989-1992); and Joint Secretary, Central and Eastern Europe, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi (2001-2004).
Asked for his favourite posting so far, Mr. Wadhwa answered like a true diplomat. “It is very difficult to say because each has its own specialties and charms. I will say that wherever I have been, I really enjoyed myself,” he said, adding that the weather in Poland is quite cold compared to Oman, Thailand or to India. “The summer there was very pleasant and actually I like cold weather because it makes you more energetic.”
Mr. Wadhwa is married to Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, who joined the Indian Foreign Service in the same year as her husband and like him also has a distinguished service record in India and abroad. Currently the Indian Ambassador to Japan, she has also served as Ambassador to Sweden and Latvia and Qatar. They have two sons.
Mr. Wadhwa and Thailand
Mr. Wadhwa, who first visited Thailand in the 1990s on holiday, described his daily routine. “In the morning I look at the local, international and Indian press. Then I might have a morning event scheduled, otherwise I will just come to the office, look at correspondence and take care of various tasks. Sometimes we have negotiations, so I will attend these, or there is a UN meeting. In the evenings there is usually a reception. This is the normal life of an Ambassador,” said Mr. Wadhwa, who since taking his post here has been on official visits to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Phuket.
“Concerning my official duties, every day there is some business with United Nations agencies which are based here in Bangkok. The main focus for me is on trade and economic relations between India and Thailand. I am also devoting a lot of attention to the summit meeting to be attended by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and India. It will be held from December 19-22 in New Delhi to commemorate the 20th anniversary of relations between India and ASEAN.
“As a result we are doing a lot of what we call ‘marker events’ – organizing seminars for business, getting cultural events organized, getting writers or photographers together and similar kinds of activities to commemorate the anniversary. This keeps us very busy,” said the Ambassador, who will also attend the summit.
India and Thailand established diplomatic relations in August 1947 through the exchange of envoys. The representation was elevated to ambassadorial level in October 1951. “The first Indian Embassy here began operations on Phayathai Road in the mid-50s. In late 1960s we moved to Sathorn Road near the Sri Mariamman Temple (Wat Kaek) and in 1980 moved again, to Sukhumvit Soi 23. There’s an Indian Consulate in Chiang Mai which was inaugurated in October 1972.
“We are going to renovate the Embassy soon and also build residential flats for our Embassy staff on our vacant plot of land nearby. We have 75 people working at the Embassy, about 25 Indian nationals and the rest Thai-Indians and Thais,” Mr. Wadhwa said.
A time-tested relationship
“There is a strong historical and cultural affinity between our two nations. Sanskrit is our common bond. The old Pallavan script influenced the Thai script. There is also a strong linkage through religion, especially Buddhism,” said Mr. Wadhwa, noting that many Thais also pray to the Hindu deities Brahma and Ganesha. Buddhism spread in Thailand through other countries in South West Asia and has Indian origins and linkages. “Architecture in Thailand has a lot of Indian influence,” the Ambassador said.
As a result of this long contact there are a great number of people in Thailand of Indian origin. “We estimate that there are 170,000 Indians and people of Indian origin in Thailand who have Thai nationality, of which about 100,000 are Thai Sikhs, as well as about 70,000 born in India.
“Any Indian born in Thailand can apply for an Indian passport, but can’t hold dual nationality. We don’t allow that. They have to choose whether they want to be a Thai or an Indian citizen.
However, we have a system called Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) that allows a person of Indian origin the right to enter India as often as they want without a visa, and some other special privileges with regard to buying property or working, but not the right to vote. So anyone holding this card just shows it and their Thai passport to enter India. The person’s wife and children can get the OCI card, and if you marry an Indian girl you can get this card as well.”
Mr. Wadhwa remarked that in the past Indians in Thailand were chiefly known as money lenders, but this business has given way to real estate, textiles and other areas. He said that there are 32 Indian associations in Thailand, which the Embassy is trying to bring under one umbrella organization so that they can easily keep in contact.
Humming on all spheres
“The relationship between India and Thailand is very good in all spheres,” said Mr. Wadhwa. “During the past decade or so the political relationship has grown because we have had at least 12 prime ministerial visits from both sides and a number of high-level ministerial visits.
“The last such visit was by the Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in January, when she was the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations. During the visit, six agreements in the areas of defense, science and technology, cultural and academic cooperation and trade and commerce were signed. It was a very successful and beneficial visit for both countries.
“This positive trend will continue and we expect that Prime Minister Yingluck will visit India again for the ASEAN – India Commemorative Summit in December. It will be a large event attended by around 1,000 people, including a number of heads of state.”
Mr. Wadhwa said that things are also going very well in the sphere of business. Bilateral trade increased by US$2 billion last year, to a total of $8.2 billion. Both India and Thailand have set a target of doubling this amount by 2014.
“Indian investment in Thailand is altogether about $2 billion, but Thai investment in India is only about $100 million. We have about 40 large and 40 smaller Indian companies in Thailand. That number is increasing quite rapidly, with many companies opening liaison offices in Thailand because of the ASEAN Economic Community which is coming online in 2015. They are very much interested in using Thailand as a gateway to ASEAN.
“We are investing in Thailand mostly in the manufacturing sector – products like steel, chemicals, fertilizer, carbon black and automotive components. We have a limited Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and very soon we will have completed a comprehensive FTA between our two countries.
“Thais are investing in India mostly in the services sector. Many Thai hotel chains are opening up in India, including Dusit, Amari and Majestic Capital chains. The Lemon Tree Thai restaurant chain is opening in 10 India cities,” Mr. Wadhwa said.
Major Indian exports to Thailand include jewelry, metal ores, iron, chemicals, electrical appliances, machinery and parts, pharmaceuticals, buses and trucks, plastic products and fabrics. Some items India imports from Thailand are polymers, steel, auto-parts and accessories, gems, chemical products, rubber, cosmetics, air conditioners and parts, fabrics and insulated wire and cables.
Cultural and people-to-people exchange
The Indian Cultural Centre (ICC) opened in September 2009 on the 27th and 28th floors of Jasmine City Building, Sukhumvit Soi 23. The ICC organizes cultural events such as painting and photographic exhibitions, seminars and other cultural events related to India. The centre also conducts yoga, sitar, tabla and dance classes by trained experts.
Muay Thai centres have opened in Bangalore and Mumbai inspired by the popularity of the sport in Thailand. The Indian junior women’s hockey squad that visited Thailand not so long ago finished second in the 6th Junior Women’s Asia Cup tournament. “A lot of Indians are coming here in organized trips to play golf. We don’t have any active collaboration as such but we take part in tournaments in each other’s countries. This helps to increase tourism.
“About one million Indian tourists visited Thailand in 2011. They usually come with families, rarely alone. Indians like Thailand. They think it is good value for money and they enjoy their stay here. What’s more, they don’t complain about the country after going back home. We have 154 flights arriving in Thailand every week. This includes all airlines. Few if any Indians are coming here for medical tourism because India itself is a good destination for medical tourism.
“On the other side, there were between 60,000 to 80,000 Thais visiting India in 2011, up from about 40,000 in 2010.”
Mr. Wadhwa stressed that India is also dedicated to maintaining and strengthening its ties and cooperation with other ASEAN nations, including Myanmar. “The friendship between India and Myanmar is excellent. As with Thailand, it is a country with which we also have a long and historical relationship. Myanmar used to be a part of the British Empire and the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is buried in Yangon and we maintain his memorial in Yangon. We also have many Indians who have been living there for centuries, some of them the descendants of traders during the British time who were dealing in timber and other things.”
Living the good life in Thailand
“I like my life in Thailand very much. For one thing, there are many good restaurants and eating spots (he especially likes Indus and Rang Mahal Indian restaurants in Bangkok). There are also some very nice places for entertainment like movie theatres, and some nice parks I love to go to. I enjoy going to ballet and other dance performances. About the only thing I don’t like is the traffic, which is sometimes too heavy.”
Among his most memorable experiences during his relatively short time here was when he presented his credentials to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on May 6, 2012.
“Another was in March when Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn inaugurated the photo exhibition of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, a respected Indian philosopher and poet, held at Chulalongkorn University’s Art and Culture Building, and afterwards performed anointment for the signboard of the Indian Study Centre. The Princess also watched the ‘Chitrangada’ Odissi dance-drama that pays homage to Tagore. The event was attended by about 1,000 people.
“Another memorable event was the visit of Prime Minister Yingluck to India in January, which I organized and joined. Every time the Thai Prime Minister or Foreign Minister visits India I must go beforehand and receive them at the airport,” the Ambassador explained.
His hobbies include watching movies, reading, listening to music of every kind, and playing golf and tennis.
IN addition to the diplomatic postings mentioned in the text, Ambassador Wadhwa has also served as: Second Secretary / First Secretary in the Embassy of India, Beijing (1983-1987); Under Secretary / Deputy Secretary in Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi (1987-1989); UN Disarmament Fellow in Geneva (1989); Counsellor in Embassy of India, Beijing (1993-1993); Director/Joint Secretary on deputation to the Provisional Technical Secretariat, and later the Technical Secretariat, for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague (1993-2000).