MR Grepl is among the most accomplished diplomats residing in Bangkok, but a career in foreign services was not something he planned for at an early age. He had already compiled a diverse list of experiences before getting his chance to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when the ruling communist dictatorship dissolved in 1989.
He explains: “I was born in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. I have an older sister and a twin brother who is ten minutes my senior. I was raised in a highly cultural and sports-loving family with a strong orientation towards the arts and intellectual and physical pursuits. My father was a pianist in Prague Conservatory and my mother was a kindergarten teacher. They both worked very hard.
“I studied the Russian and Finnish languages, literature and history at the Faculty of Philosophy of the prestigious Charles University in Prague, one of the oldest in Europe, founded exactly 666 years ago in 1348.
“Anyway, I always wanted to travel and work abroad. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the world opened to us, including new job opportunities. I did not hesitate to join the foreign services.
“I started my new career at the lowest level as a desk officer in the MFA. My first posting abroad was Finland, the country of my dreams since my student days. After five great years in Finland I got an offer to become a director of the MFA’s Asian Department. At first I hesitated to accept the offer as, being so European oriented, I did not know much about Asia, but I accepted the challenge and I have to say that an absolutely fantastic world opened to me – one full of extraordinarily interesting places.
“I find Asian countries colourful, attractive and exotic. I am fascinated by the historic evolution of their political structures and economic development. There is also great diversity of nature, culture and ethnicity in the distinguished heirs of old Asian civilizations.
“All of this made me want to make my life closely associated with Asia, a decision I’ve never regretted,” said Mr Grep. “In the year 2000 I became ambassador to Malaysia and after four years, which is the normal term of rotation, I left for China, where I spent five years. That is a usual term in the most important countries.
“I dare to say that my five years in China were somehow equal to ten years in Europe. This became the experience of my life in so many aspects. Everything there – its political, economic, social and cultural development has been so accelerated and has fully drawn everyone inside. So much was happening every day! It required an enormous amount of energy and concentration of me.
“At the end of my term, I felt quite exhausted. That is why the term for ambassadors has a limit. With a new ambassador fresh ideas and new energy for development of diplomatic ties usually appear.”
After his time in China, Mr Grepl spent three years stationed in Prague as the director general of the MFA’s Political Section dealing with development cooperation for all non-European countries. “I dealt with political issues related to Asia, Africa, Middle East, Latin America and North America and I took care of around 50 foreign ambassadors and supervised 55 Czech envoys representing us outside of Europe. It was extremely challenging but also very rewarding.
“I travelled to many places all around the globe and met so many people. It showed me our common world in all its complexity – its beauty as well as its problems. When the time came again to move abroad in my diplomatic career and I was asked where my dreams would lead me, I simply pointed to the Kingdom of Thailand. And here I am.”
The ambassador vividly and happily recalls his first visit to the country 15 years ago.
“The winter of 1998 was particularly strong and long in Finland. My wife got exhausted by the frost, snow and ice and asked me to take here to a nice, and especially warm, place full of sun, greenery and colourful flowers. I suggested Thailand, and Thailand it was. It also was my first trip out of Europe. This trip was probably the decisive moment in my career.
“Ever since then I have been returning to Asia more so than Europe, and my family also began to associate their lives predominantly with this massive, vibrant and dynamic continent, which became the new centre of gravity of our world.”
Cementing Czech-Thai relations
As the ambassador of the Czech Republic to Thailand, a big part of Mr Grepl’s duty here is to promote the relatively small country in central Europe. This is made easier by the fact that a surprising number of Thais have visited and fallen in love with his homeland and its capital of Prague.
It’s also well known to many Thais for famous personalities such as the brilliant composers Bedˇrich Smetana and Antonín Dvoˇrák; courageous leaders like Alexander Dubˇcek, whose attempt to reform the country’s communist system was crushed by Warsaw Pact armies in August 1968; and former President
The Czech Republic is also known in Thailand for fine products ranging from Bohemia Crystal to Škoda passenger cars. It also produces the Aero L-39 Albatros, a high-performance jet trainer aircraft in service with the Thai Air Force, and CZ pistols, which are especially popular with the Thai police.
The Kingdom of Thailand and the Czech Republic established diplomatic relations on 15 March, 1974. Both the Czech Embassy in Bangkok and Thai embassy in Prague have prepared exclusive events to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
“Czech-Thai contacts go back quite far. Detailed information about the Kingdom of Siam was brought to the people of the Czech lands in the 17th century by Jesuit missionaries. After the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 economic relations started to flourish and Czech companies like Bata, Škoda and Zbrojovka Brno became strong in the region of Southeast Asia.
“In 1989, the year of democratic change in Czechoslovakia and the end of the communist regime, a new era of Czech-Thai relations began. Thailand soon became a favourite destination for Czech tourists and businessmen. The Czech and Thai governments launched numerous joint activities and a new basis for political relations was established.”
An embassy of the Czech Republic in Thailand was opened when diplomatic relations were established in 1974. The current location of the embassy is on Ploenchit Road close to the Conrad and Plaza Athenee hotels. “A medium-sized foreign mission by our standards, the embassy is one of the most important Czech embassies in Asia covering Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia,” said Mr Grepl, explaining that although the Czech Republic opened an embassy in Phnom Penh last December and plans to open one in Yangon very soon, for the time being he remains the ambassador accredited with the governments of all these countries.
“There are altogether 15 people working at the embassy in Bangkok, both Czechs and Thais. We make a very good team. I personally meet every one of our staff every day and talk to my people. I try to make completely clear to everyone what we are doing and why, and what is expected from all of us. Everyone here works hard.
“I believe in encouraging my people and acknowledging their efforts, and I get a very good response from them. That is also why they don’t shy away from work when a job has to be done. We have a lot of fun while working, too.
“I believe the Thai spirit makes this heartfelt and warm working environment possible. It is a profound pleasure to work with all my people, they are such a good team.
“As for my duties and responsibilities as ambassador, generally speaking the main obligation is to develop friendly, positive and mutually advantageous relations in our respective countries. This is based on respect towards the host country´s territorial integrity, political system, religious traditions, basic values and so on.
“Needless to say, an ambassador is primarily sent abroad to defend the interests of his country. An ambassador is a kind of bridge between the governments of two nations whose responsibility is to develop cooperation in all possible areas – politics, economics, trade, defense, culture, education, environment, science and technology, sports and so on,” Mr Grepl said.
“I actively look for new options for the development of mutual relations. An ambassador not only runs the embassy, he or she must also take part in a large number of events and meet with heads of state and highly ranked people in the central government or parliament and, during visits outside the capital, also the leading persons in the provinces. As ambassador I normally accompany important visitors from my country. I am responsible for overseeing the image of the Czech Republic in Thailand.
“Of course, an ambassador also has responsibility towards his country´s nationals who are in the territory of the host country. This role is usually more visible in times of emergency.
“I regret to say that so far I have travelled outside Bangkok less than I would have liked. The main reason is preoccupation with the opening of our embassies in Yangon and Phnom Penh. That is why I have visited relatively few places, like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Hua Hin, Phuket, Pattaya.
“Today, tens of thousands of Czechs come to visit Thailand every year and the volume of trade is dynamically increasing on both sides. Relations between the two countries are developing successfully with no major obstacles. At the same time the Czech Republic has become known among many Thais as an interesting place to visit, and their number is increasing every year.
“According to my information and the Immigration Bureau of Thailand, altogether 32,928 Czech nationals visited Thailand in 2012. I haven’t got the final figures for 2013 but I expect a similar number of arrivals. As for Thais visiting the Czech Republic, the number was somewhere around 40,000 in 2013, which is approximately 10% more than in 2012. There are over 200 Czechs living in Thailand on a long-term basis, whereas around 700 Thais are currently staying in the Czech Republic.”
Mr Grepl said the core of Czech-Thai relations lies in trade, but there are also strong bonds in the areas of economy, defense, tourism, education and agriculture. “Our bilateral relations are extremely friendly and mutually advantageous. Thailand continues to be the largest trading partner of the Czech Republic among ASEAN member states and Czech companies regularly participate at trade fairs in Thailand. Thai companies take part at the International Engineering Fair in Brno, the biggest trade fair of its kind in Central Europe. It has a long history and tradition.”
Since 2004 the Czech Republic has become an active member of the European Union and Mr Grepl strongly believes that the free trade agreement between Thailand and the European Union currently being negotiated will result in further growth of bilateral trade between Thailand and the Czech Republic.
“I am convinced that this agreement will bring clear benefits to both parties. An important part of building relations is creating opportunities for the people of our countries to get to know each other, share knowledge and experiences and learn from each other. I am pleased to see that there exist direct links between universities in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There is cooperation in research and development and also student exchange programs.
“We are very happy that Thai students often choose universities in the Czech Republic. Many of them study under the Erasmus Mundus Programme. And on the other hand young Czechs also come to study at universities in Thailand.”
Asked about high-level visits between the two countries, Mr Grepl said: “In order to record the most important visit from Thailand to then Czechoslovakia we have to go 80 years back, to the state visit of His Majesty the King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, in 1934. On the other side, the visit of Czech President Václav Havel to Thailand and his meeting with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, in 1994 has been the most important political event of our modern relations.
“Last year was rather significant in terms of strengthening bilateral ties. In January the former Czech minister of industry and trade, Martin Kuba, visited Thailand and an agreement on economic cooperation between our two governments was signed. In June, Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwannathat, the then Thai minister of defense, visited the Czech Republic and signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow closer cooperation in the area of defence and security.
“In September we welcomed in our country an official delegation headed by (now caretaker) Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Surapong Tovichakchaikul, who among others presided over the first session of the Joint Commission on Economic Cooperation between the Czech Republic and the Kingdom of Thailand. We have ambitious plans for exchange of high level visits this year, too,” the ambassador said.
“There is hardly anything that I dislike in Thailand, outside of occasionally getting caught in traffic jams in Bangkok. But otherwise Thailand is a charming and hospitable country full of warm, polite and helpful people. What I really appreciate here is, that even though I am quite busy at work, I can still keep a very fine balance between my working and private life.
“I personally appreciate all of this and that’s why it was no trouble to move to such a different environment. The beauty of Thailand is in its admirable diversity. Anyone can find what he or she likes. Generally speaking, this country has been very good to me. I have even started to smile more than before [the ambassador is well known as a jovial person], probably under the influence of the many Thai people around me who never scrimp on smiles. Simply put, I am a happy man in the ‘Land of Smiles.’
“What I really appreciate here, as do most visitors, is Thai cuisine. It is a phenomenon around the world. I even made a New Year’s resolution that I would learn to prepare the most delicious Thai dishes. I am going to take some classes to master them very soon. In fact I already took my first class in Prague, from my extremely kind and patient, mentor and ‘master chef,’ HE Vitavas Srivihok, the Thai ambassador to the Czech Republic. Our first joint cooking session was so much fun! That was a great encounter with Thai culture, even though it did not happen in Thailand but in the heart of Europe!
“I have been to Thailand for just a little more than a year, so I believe most of the great and memorable moments here are still waiting. However, there was an event which I very much like to recall. It was the presentation of my Letters of Credentials to the hands of His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. The event was held on the beautiful premises of Amhara Royal Palace in a highly ceremonial but also very warm and human manner,” Mr Grepl said.
“Cooking is for me the best way to fight the stress which comes with my job. I close the door to the kitchen, turn on some music and together with my son David, we cook and chat and sip some drinks and have fun. Then in two or three hours a tasty lunch or dinner is ready to be served... The people around us appreciate that very much and we enjoy ourselves at the same time.
“I also do sports to get some mental relaxation from the hustle and bustle of city life. Sometimes I skip lunch and go biking in Lumpini Park, which usually charges me with new, clean energy.
“I also play ice hockey in Bangkok, something many people in Europe would never believe is possible. We have a lot of fun and play for good causes. For instance, two weeks ago I played on the team of the World against the team of Canada to collect money for the Thai Red Cross. I also like to play tennis but I haven’t had enough time for that recently. Sports have played an important role in my life. They have taught me perseverance, both mental and physical, to respect opponents and to play fairly, by the rules.
“As for other hobbies, I like to read books and watch films and I enjoy an occasional cigar. I am also a serious collector of old postage stamps, and I collect originals of rare prints from the 16th portraits.
“I am very fond of music and I listen to all kinds. As my father used to take me to so many concerts in Prague, I am fond of classical music. But I also like to listen to jazz, rock and pop music which was popular in my youth, and with some exceptions to the music of my son’s generation, too.”