Diplomat: His Excellency Ivo Sieber, Ambassador of Switzerland
Words Maxmilian Wechsler
IN a recent interview at his office inside the large Swiss embassy compound on North Wireless Road, His Excellency Ambassador Ivo Sieber provided some insight on his nation’s enviable record of cultural, economic, and humanitarian achievements.
“We in Switzerland have a long multi-cultural and multi-lingual tradition, and a tradition of a very participative and inclusive democracy. This perspective penetrates society and reflects how we deal with individuals and issues. Switzerland is a funny country in a way. There isn’t really a definitive Swiss culture or anything like it. People are more or less forced to learn several languages. Some say that we only exist thanks to our institutions, which emphasise direct democracy, subsidiarity and multiculturalism. We have a federal system that provides for compensation to those who need it and a social organisation that allows minorities to feel included and not marginalised.
“A former Minister of Foreign Affairs [MFA] put it very well. She often said: ‘I am in four or five ways a minority. I am a socialist, a woman, a mother, French speaking, and a Catholic. But I have never felt marginalised even though I have all these characteristics, because this is an inclusive society.’”
The ambassador’s own background is a good illustration of the multiculturalism and inclusiveness that characterise the Swiss people. Not only does he speak four languages German, French, some Italian, and English – but he discovered at an early age that he has an affinity for international relations. He was born in the eastern town of Altstätten on the border to Austria in August 1957 and will celebrate his 60th birthday in the same month as the Swiss National Day.
Asked why he decided to join the MFA after a promising start in the field of law, he replied: “I started travelling at an early age. I was in a student exchange program when I was in high school and spent a year in the United States. I felt comfortable in a multicultural setting and I enjoyed inter-acting with people.
“Practicing as a lawyer and doing business was interesting and fascinating, but I realised I wanted something that focused more on international relations. Journalism was one of the options I was looking at. I also had a job offer with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which can be described as a humanitarian diplomatic service. I seriously contemplated that option, but finally decided to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I have never regretted it for a moment. I am a career diplomat and committed to it,” said Ambassador Sieber.
In Switzerland, perhaps more than any other country, this means cultivating the art of negotiation. “This is the ‘secret’ of Swiss diplomacy. We have good relationships with all countries, and of course we have a tradition of neutrality. We also have a long tradition of offering our diplomatic services for negotiations and mediation between countries. We have quite a good capacity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries to deploy that sort of diplomacy when requested by two parties in conflict, for example.
“This function was at its highest with the so-called ‘protection mandates’, most of which were set up during the Second World War. Then we had several dozen mandates to represent countries that were at war with each other. Several of these mandates continued during the Cold War and continue even today.
“For example, we represented the United States in Cuba and Cuba in the US from 1961 until two years ago, when the two countries re-established diplomatic relations. In 1991 Switzerland was also invited to represent Cuban interests in the US after the break-up of Czechoslovakia, who previously held this mandate.”
“Right now, we represent the US in Iran. We also act on behalf of Russia in Georgia and Georgia in Russia after the two countries severed diplomatic relations in the wake of their border war in 2008. Even with the number of these mandates has diminished since the Cold War, this area of expertise remains an important part of our diplomatic mission.”
No stranger to Thailand
“I visited Thailand for the first time 40 years ago, in April 1977. It was my last holiday before final exams in high school,” the ambassador recalled. “I met friends in Thailand and in Malaysia. I came to the region for three weeks, starting in Singapore, then Malaysia and ending up in Bangkok for a few days. Bangkok was a very different city then. I stayed in a guesthouse because as a student I didn’t have much money. It was somewhere right on Sathorn Road, close to the Dusit Thani Hotel, which was the tallest building in Bangkok. At that time Sathorn was lined with one and two-storey traditional Thai-style buildings. The klong was wide and on both sides of a two-lane road. I remember that half of the way from Don Muang airport was through rice fields. It was a trip from the countryside to the city.
“I came to Thailand again after I finished my studies in Australia and did some travelling in the region. I went to Myanmar and then spent some time in Thailand. From time to time I came back for holidays. This is actually my second diplomatic assignment in Thailand. I worked at the Swiss embassy here from 1994 to1998.
“I became an ambassador in 2010 and this is my second ambassadorial assignment. The term is usually four years, but it’s not fixed. My predecessor was here for six years. My first ambassadorial post was in the Philippines, with side-accreditations to Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. Climate-wise it’s the same as Thailand where I already spent four years during my first assignment. I also served five months in Malaysia in the late 90s, as part of a two-year secondment by the Swiss foreign ministry to the Swiss industrial corporation Sulzer AG. I am already a year and a half in Thailand as Ambassador, so I have spent a lot of time in tropical Southeast Asia.
“I arrived in Thailand as ambassador in mid-September 2015 and received full accreditation from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs on October 1. I am also accredited as ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Kingdom of Cambodia. I travel to both countries quite frequently but it really depends on the activities taking place there. In both Laos and in Cambodia we have a development cooperation office implementing programs with the respective government and with other partners as well. Switzerland also maintains a program for the Lower Mekong Region which on a regional basis also extends into Myanmar and Thailand.”
The ambassador said that even though he prefers a cooler climate and still perspires a lot here, he’s very happy with his current assignment. “Thai people are absolutely spectacular. They generate such positive emotions and they are extremely welcoming. I have very good friends here. I spend most of my time in Bangkok. It is a truly cosmopolitan environment but there are also possibilities to live out very traditional experiences if you want, like in Chinatown.
“You can also take short trips outside the city to get a complete change of scene. It takes about three hours to drive to Nakhon Ratchasima province where you see a very different side of Thailand. Thailand has a long and fascinating culture, and this is one reason the Swiss travel and live in Thailand in such big numbers.”
Switzerland and Thailand established diplomatic relations in 1931 and the first Bangkok embassy was inaugurated in 1949. The current embassy building was opened in 1961 and became a kind of icon, partly for its spectacular location, and also because of its architectural design.
“Conceived by Hans Hoffman, a well-known professor at the Federal Technical University in Zürich, who himself studied under the famous Swiss architect and designer Charles-Eduard Jeanneret ‘Le Corbusier’ also designed Switzerland’s 1939 National Exhibition as well as the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi. In fact the embassy building here in Bangkok was finished after the architect passed away,” said the ambassador.
“I live at the embassy, so I am only a few meters away from my office,” said Mr Sieber with a smile. “That has its pros and cons. In a city like Bangkok where I would otherwise spend a lot of time commuting, it is very good because sometimes I need quick access to my workplace. Having my residence here is also good because we are doing a lot of activities entertainment, conferences, meetings and so on – at the residence. It is very easy and practical to use the adjacent office and residence as a functional space for diplomacy. The only downside to living here is that it makes me spend a little more time in the office than I should.
“We have altogether 52 people working at the embassy, with 14 transferrable staff who are dispatched from Switzerland. We also have a few locally employed Swiss. Naturally we also employ a number of Thai nationals. Quite a few of them have lived and worked in Switzerland providing valuable know-how and experience to complement the Swiss capacity and expertise and facilitating the cultural interface. It is an excellent mix in the well-established tradition of Swiss multiculturalism.”
The ambassador said the embassy staff is very fond of the green and spacious compound and the surrounding area, but he noted that recent property transactions signal a change is coming. The nearby Swissôtel Nai Lert Park was recently sold, and a low-rise structure close to the embassy has been torn down to pave the way for a high-rise building. “It’s not a great prospect to be surrounded by high-rises, but there’s very little we can do about it.”
Thai-Swiss relationship stands test of time
Bangkok is now the most popular tourist destination in the world in terms of the number of visitors, more than even Paris, London, or New York. They come for the sun, the culture, the airports, the welcoming environment, and great Thai food, among other things. But the Thai-Swiss romance goes back before Thailand’s discovery as a tourist mecca.
“We have long-standing and deep personal and business connections. For example, DKSH, a large and prominent Swiss trading and marketing company, has been in Thailand for 110 years. We have extensive business relations going back to the late 1800s. The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej spent 17 years in Switzerland with his family, which strengthened the ties between our two countries decisively. The Princess Mother lived in Switzerland until the late 1980s.
“Relations between Thailand and Switzerland are excellent and have been for a long time, but there’s always room to improve them. The comprehensive set of bilateral agreements concluded between our two countries and covering such areas as the avoidance of double-taxation, investment protection, legal assistance in criminal matters or the transfer of prisoners provide a solid basis to further extend our relations.”
“About 150 Swiss companies have holdings here, with some of them major investments. The trade-exchange between our two countries is more or less even in the value amounting to a total of US$ 5.2 billion in 2015. Swiss imports from Thailand are composed of watch components, precious stones and metals, some agriculture products, machinery, textiles, clothing, vehicles, and components for planes. We export to Thailand gemstones and jewellery, watches and watch parts, machinery, pharmaceutical and chemical products, and medical devices. The trade volume of watch components going from Thailand to Switzerland is more or less equivalent to the watches sent from Switzerland to Thailand.
“Thailand hosts the largest Swiss community anywhere in Asia. There are around 10,000 Swiss expats registered with the embassy, three times more than in the Philippines, for example, another popular destination for Swiss migrating to Asia. Thailand is also by far the most popular destination for Swiss tourists visiting the region. Last year 207,000 Swiss travelled to Thailand compared to and 204,000 in 2015, with their average stay extending to around 2 weeks. There are also sizable tourist numbers going the other way.
“In 2015 about 97,000 Thai people visited Switzerland, a number which increased by 13 percent to 109,000 in 2016, despite the fact that Thai nationals require a visa to visit Switzerland. They usually come in spring and fall as Thai visitors like the cooler seasons but not so much the cold. If they go to Switzerland in March or April they can still see snow if they want to.”
Guns and culture
Switzerland’s traditional neutrality has kept it from direct participation in Europe’s wars of the past one-and-a-half centuries. But as the ambassador pointed out – a credible defense posture comprising of a standing army is necessary to maintain an active neutrality. The military extends to all able-bodied males. Women may serve as well but aren’t required. There is a core of professional soldiers but for the most part it is a militia system made up of reserve soldiers. “I did my military service just like everyone else.
“At the end of the Cold War Switzerland scaled down the size of the military just like other European countries, resulting in a notable smaller number of reserve soldiers. They are allowed to keep their guns at home, and this includes automatic rifles. Once a year, reservists have to do a shooting program to stay in practice. This is usually done on Saturdays. Frequently on Saturday morning you see people taking the bicycle with the gun on their backs and going to do their shooting.”
Asked about the rate of crimes involving guns in Switzerland, Mr Sieber said it was in the lowest quintile among the 36 OECD member states, despite the second highest small-arms ownership rate. “It is not the guns that kill, it is people. Crime doesn’t come from the fact that people have guns. What matters is the way people handle their guns and the cultural associations they have with them. Every Swiss person who has a gun goes out once a year to shoot. Apparently, this contributes to satisfy whatever urges they may have to use the gun.
“For example, in Zurich where I live we have an annual tradition of holding a shooting competition for kids between the ages of 12 and 15. They have five tries to shoot, using the regular army rifles. The kids, both boys and girls, experience the power of guns and this sort of takes away the attraction.
Standing firm on immigration
Policies on immigration are a hot topic across Europe, and Switzerland is no exception. “We continue to accept refugees. There has been debate on this subject recently in Switzerland, but as it stands now the official policy still comes out on the side of humanitarian assistance. On a number of occasions in the past such as the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the Czechoslovakian revolt in 1968 against the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies or the Balkan wars in the 90es, large numbers of refugees fled to Switzerland and found asylum there. Over the course of the recent history, sizable groups of Tibetan and Tamil refugees found safety and resettled in my home country.
“Moreover, Switzerland experienced a large wave of migration in the 1960s and early 1970s from Southern Europe. Because of the Balkan wars, Switzerland has the largest Kosovar-Albanian community outside Kosovo.”
The ambassador acknowledged that the traditional policy of accepting refugees is causing some strain in society. “Right now the foreign population in Switzerland amounts to almost one quarter of all people living in the country. In cities like Geneva, almost half of the residents are foreigners. In the last couple of years, pressure has been building in Europe over immigration and there has been a great deal of debate, also in Switzerland. Our experience in the past with waves of migrants has consistently been that integration efforts were crucial and that they contributed to the development, strength and vibrancy of society.”
When asked if immigrants from particular countries tend to live together, Mr Sieber replied: “It depends. Experience shows, that initially, this often is the trend but over time they generally integrate into society as a whole. This is a policy that we actively pursue for foreigners coming into Switzerland, whether they be refugees or migrants. We assist them in adapting to and becoming part of society as much as possible, so they are not sidelined and can become active, find a job and contribute to the community.
“Moreover, Switzerland agreed in 2014 on a package deal with the EU which opens the border to all EU citizens who wish to work in Switzerland. Anybody from the Czech Republic, Spain, or Slovakia can work in Switzerland, and Swiss nationals can work in these countries as well. At the time, this was a courageous thing; Switzerland with a population of eight million and a quite attractive economy opening up its labour market to 360 million Europeans was not a simple feast. While this resulted in a substantial inflow of EU nationals into Switzerland, it actually helped to sustain and to build economic growth.”
The ambassador said that when he has free time he mainly likes to spend it with his family. “In addition, I like to play tennis and read or take private recreational trips, but I must say that I don’t have much disposable time to follow these activities.
“When I can I like to explore countries by driving around and going off the beaten track as much as possible. Thailand has some excellent highways. Right now, I plan to branch-out and explore the neighbouring countries by road.
“I will stay in Thailand for another two years, until 2018. After that there will be three more years left until I reach retirement age.”
BACKGROUND OF H.E. IVO SIEBER
· 1982: Master of Law, University of Zurich, Switzerland
· 1988: LL.M., University of Sydney, Australia Professional career
· 2010-2015: Ambassador to the Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands
· 2006-2010: Counselor and Deputy Head of Mission, Swiss Embassy Stockholm
· 2004-2006: Head of Information and spokesperson of the Foreign Minister, Bern
· 2001-2004: Counselor and Head of the Economic Department, Swiss Embassy London
· 2000-2001: Head of Section, International Environmental Affairs, Bern, Switzerland
· 1998-1999: Secondment to Swiss industrial corporation Sulzer AG
· 1994-1998: Counselor and Deputy Head of Mission, Swiss Embassy Bangkok
· 1990-1994: First Secretary, Permanent Observer Mission
of Switzerland to the United Nations, New York
· 1988-1989: Attaché and
Deputy Head of Mission, Swiss Embassy Harare, Zimbabwe
· Practiced law in Zurich, Switzerland and Sydney, Australia before joining the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1988.