UNLESS something truly untoward happens between now and August 11, H.E. Asif Ahmad will complete his tour of duty as Britain’s Ambassador to Thailand next month without having witnessed any of the social upheavals and political turbulence that have rocked the country in recent years, and witnessed close at hand by many of his predecessors, particularly the previous incumbent, Quinton Quayle.
Countless other issues have intruded into Mr Asif’s tenure, of course, but these have had more to do with natural calamities, consular affairs and certain niggling domestic matters than violent demonstrations and political struggles. More agreeable recent challenges have included overseeing HM Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebrations in Thailand, promoting next month’s Olympics in London and preparing the ground for the next British envoy.
Sent here in November 2010 on a short posting to “bridge the gap” between ambassadors, his tour has been considerably longer than originally planned, and a good deal busier too, what with overseeing an increase in embassy functions and staff. His eight years of handling Asian issues as a Director of UKTI (United Kingdom Trade & Investment) and as the South East Asia Regional head, based at the Foreign Office in London, equipped him well for the business and diplomatic side of the job, while his many years spent as a banker taught him much about the finances.
But there’s no substitute for the real thing and today, after 21 months as head of the British delegation, it’s safe to assume that his observations of Thailand are now sharper and wiser than before. Interestingly, although he remains generally upbeat about this country, it’s also clear that some of his views also come with surprisingly tough caveats.
Among the positive impressions he readily mentions are the natural beauty of this country, and the hospitality of its people and their family values, which he reckons some of his countrymen would do well to emulate. He also talks passionately about the resilience and fortitude shown by the Thais during last year’s floods, which, he maintains, were not only a huge challenge for Thailand, “but would have been equally huge for any other country facing such a massive disaster.”
He’s an admirer of Thailand’s economy. “It’s broad-based, ranging from farming to high technology, and in this sense, Thailand has so much going for it.”
Britain’s much improved trade figures with Thailand – up 28% in 2011 – are an obvious source of pleasure. And they will improve further thanks, somewhat ironically, to the spectacular performance of Sahaviriya Steel Industries, a Thai company that last year acquired a steel blast furnace in the UK and has already begun shipping steel to this country.
He’s less enamoured with Thailand’s brand of politics, which he describes as “dysfunctional” and reckons the present stand-off is without ideological substance.
“The more I look into the background of the country’s politics, the more I realize it shouldn’t be this way. Thailand has so much going for it – full employment, natural resources, high levels of literacy, gender equality and no obvious poverty. So, it’s actually all about certain people struggling for control of the levers of power.
“Thailand is a lucky country, but its luck may run out. It’s not unsalvageable, but it’s got to get its act together. With the pillars of state and all the other systems properly in place, Thailand can be a huge success.”
One of his caveats pops up at this juncture, with a warning to the government about Burma’s emerging power. “In 20 years, Burma* will rival Thailand on every front, in natural resources, investment, tourism and so on. Thailand will have to watch its position carefully.”
The ambassador is surprisingly sanguine about Thai politicians and won’t accept they have anything but good intentions, and singles out senior figures like former prime ministers Khun Anand Panyarachun and General Prem Tinsulanonda for special mention as people of great dignity. The future’s looking good, too, he believes, with more and more foreign educated and savvy young Thais getting involved in politics.
As for a future role for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Mr Asif is predictably cagey. “It’s for Thai people to decide on this, and how Thaksin comes back. But if there is accommodation and it suits him and others, it’s good for Thailand. Remember, even his harshest critics say he was a positive force in his first term in office.”
Prior to the last election, Mr Asif says he made a point of meeting all possible political figures, regardless of party, including the current Prime Minister, Yingluk Shinawatra, and her deputy, the Interior Minister Yongyuth Wichaidit. This early contact has made it much easier today for the embassy to lobby leading ministers, politicians and even the Privy Council on a range of topics, from persuading against military interference in government to land ownership by foreigners. “Today, if I need to see the Prime Minister, I can,” he says robustly.
To illustrate his argument of how greater openness can benefit a nation, he mentions the case of famous British car manufacture Jaguar, whose business has boomed since its takeover by Tata of India. “The manufacturing plant remains in the UK and the cars are built by British workers,” he says.
Here in Thailand, he points out the successful integration of British company Tesco Lotus into Thailand’s retail industry. Apart from exporting a wide range of Thai products to the UK, including some that were once banned by the EU, Tesco Lotus now acts as a useful cash-and-carry service for smaller local retailers.
Returning to the subject of protectionism, the Ambassador points a finger in the direction of the new “world class” building now under construction on adjoining land that was formerly owned by the embassy and notes that its architect, Briton Amanda Levete, can’t be openly credited for the work because of restrictions on foreigners in certain professions.
“Thai culture is strong,” he says, in an attempt to allay local fears about foreign influences. “And we can learn from it in many areas, such as family values and that wonderful resilience of the people caught up in the floods.”
What does he think of the still controversial decision to sell off part of the embassy for development?
“Some people believe that it is important for the UK to have an iconic piece of land to make a statement. I don’t take that misty-eyed view. We were faced with a Treasury Department directive under the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw for embassies to fund their own expansions and additional responsibilities.
“What happened was the we sold part of the embassy containing three small houses for 50 million pounds, and we kept 10 million of that fee to build accommodation for 24 embassy staff, saving us a considerable amount of money. That was the rational.”
Unfortunately, that rational didn’t quite work out as planned, for the staff quarters turned out to be uninhabitable. “They had inherent design faults, and I couldn’t allow my staff to live there,” the ambassador readily admits. “They are currently under repair and should be ready for reoccupation by June 2013.” The cost of the work will not be the embassy’s responsibility, he says.
So, with 25 more staff being added this year, what additional roles does the embassy have today?
“Security and law enforcement – looking into serious crimes – has expanded, as have the number of immigration officers investigating illegal migration routes. Bangkok has taken over from Hong Kong as the regional headquarters in these areas of responsibility.”
“Our crisis response in looking after British nationals is much improved. This was evident during the floods late last year and in April 2011 when we worked with the Thai navy to send ships to rescue Britons and others marooned on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
“Our response to the floods last year and the most recent tsunami alert earlier this year may not have been perfect, but it was a lot better than 10 years ago. As an embassy we’re now far better at dealing with a crisis.”
Although the issuing of UK passports is no longer an embassy function, since this is now handled in Hong Kong and will revert in due course back to Britain, the visa section in Bangkok is set to expand significantly as it will handle applications not just from Thailand but beyond Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia to other places.
And while certain “back office” functions such as accounting and payroll will be switched to the embassy in Manila, the agenda of UKTI (UK Trade & Investment) in Thailand is also growing to include defence sales, and to lobby on a host of issues like the foreign business act, world trade and governance.
Mr Asif understands the criticism of the alleged problems UK nationals face over the slowness in issuing new passports. Contrary to the experience of some Britons here, it is his “view” that applicants are not required to send their old passports to the screening office in Hong Kong. “Besides, he says, “it is possible for businessmen and others who need to travel frequently to get a second passport,” while accepting that this procedure doesn’t work in the case of those with long-term Thai visas. He has asked colleagues in the Home Office to look at ways to expedite the service.
He also firmly rejects the often-heard claim that a large number of Thais have their UK visas turned down, and are forced to reapply and thereby paying the fee twice, or more. “93% of visit visa applications are approved,” he insists. “The other 7% are those who have a bad immigration history or don’t declare the right information.”
And who pockets the fee – the UK government or VFS, the company that handles the UK visa applications?
“What VFS is paid is agreed on an annual basis by the Home Office,” he says. “VFS is not incentivized to sell more visas.”
As the first Muslim to head the British embassy in Thailand, has Mr Asif faced any special problems?
“Some of the people I have met during the course of my work, including the head of ASEAN, senior Thai military and Police officers are also Muslim, so if anything it has helped.
“One or two people from the local community got a bee in their bonnet over a breakfast briefing I gave at the Residence and thought I should change my eating habits. Their views appeared in the social media and on twitter. What food I serve in the house I live in is my business.
“At events we have held in the Embassy gardens and the Queen’s Birthday Party you will have seen legs of ham, toad in the hole and haggis being served. If I could source British wine at the right cost, I would happily serve that at the Residence instead of foreign ones.”
*The UK government uses the name Burma for Myanmar.
UK trade and investment
• In 2011, exports of goods from the UK to Thailand increased by 28% to just under £1.4 billion.
• The bilateral trade is worth over £4 billion.
• In March 2011, Sahaviriya Steel Industries, Thailand’s largest steel producer, acquired a steel blast furnace in the northeast of England in a deal worth around 12 billion baht. This was one of the largest investments
into the UK in 2011. It saved 700 jobs and has led to the creation of several thousand jobs across the UK supply chain. Sahaviriya Steel Industries restarted the blast furnace on 14 April 2012 and the first shipment of steel left Teesside for Thailand on May 15.
• Nearly 850,000 British people visit Thailand each year and there are over 50,000 long term residents. The UK is now a popular holiday destination for an increasing number of Thai people and over 5,000 students went to study in British schools and universities last year