Poland’s envoy in Thailand is a man of the world in so many ways, reports Maxmilian Wechsler
HAVING visited 129 countries, H.E. Dr. Jerzy Bayer, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the Kingdom of Thailand, is unquestionably one of the world’s most-travelled diplomats. He’s also one of the most accomplished, with a background that includes journalism and peacekeeping duties for the United Nations. What’s more, this congenial 60-year-old can also converse in 14 languages.
Dressed in casual attire, relaxed and keen on details – like a military man – Ambassador Bayer told many fascinating stories when we met recently in his office at the Polish embassy in Bangkok. First he apologized for the mountain of papers on his desk and then printed a two-page CV for me. It is certainly impressive.
He speaks and reads Chinese, and can talk in varying degrees of fluency in English, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese and his own language, Polish.
As for Thai, this Warsaw-born diplomat said: “I started to learn soon after I arrived here in March, 2009, but haven’t had the time to learn systematically. That’s why I still don’t speak fluently, but I can communicate and I understand quite lot if people speak slowly. I read Thai quite well.”
His interest in other countries and cultures can be traced back to an early love of numismatics. “I started to collect coins when I was about six or seven, and from that time I started to learn languages because when I got a coin, I wanted to know what was written on it. I started with English when I was eight. This was my first foreign language.”
In 1969, Dr. Bayer entered Warsaw University’s Institute of Oriental studies, Sinology Department, where he earned an M.A. with distinction in Chinese and Tibetan studies. He was a United Nation peacekeeper in 1974-75, and then worked as a journalist for the Polish Press Agency (PAP) in many countries from 1976 to 1992.
He arrived as ambassador to Thailand in 2009, but was already well acquainted with the country. “I remember my first time in Thailand very well because it was on November 4, 1980, a day of presidential elections in the United States. At that time I was a reporter for PAP, a roving journalist in Southeast Asia, coming from the Philippines at the time.
“I can still recollect that my first impression of Thailand was the aroma of excellent and very delicious food – everywhere, day and night, around the clock. I told myself: ‘This is one of the places to be. If they have good food and smiles, it means they are good people.’ This first impression has proved to be true.
“I visited Thailand again in 1980 and once in 1985, three times in 1988 and then periodically in 1992 and 1993 when I was in Cambodia with the UN peacekeeping mission. In Cambodia I was first a civilian volunteer in charge of elections and then I moved to the military component because I love the army. I am a militarist and don’t hide it. At that time I used to visit Thailand on military business with our people, bringing them to hospitals, purchasing some items for the contingent and so on.”
The next time he visited Thailand was in 1998 when he was with the Polish Foreign Ministry. “At that time I worked in Laos as charge d’ affairs, so I used to come and go. My nomination to become ambassador came in early 2009 and I arrived here on March 15, 2009.
Although a tour of duty as ambassador is usually for four years, it is not rigidly applied. Indeed, Her Excellency Hanna Suchocka is now well into her 12th year as ambassador to the Holy See in the Vatican. She also has the distinction of being the only female Polish prime minister, serving from 1992 to 1993.
A day in the life of the Polish ambassador
The Republic of Poland is located in central Europe with a total area of 312,685 square kilometers and a population of over 38 million. The capital is Warsaw where about 1.7 million people live. Poland is a member of NATO and the European Union but still uses its own currency, the zloty, rather than the euro. “This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between Poland and Thailand. The relationship was established on November 14, 1972. The Polish embassy was opened in Bangkok the following year and the Thai embassy was opened in Warsaw at the same time,” said Ambassador Bayer.
His day starts with a press review on the internet. “I look into something like 40 to 50 titles – the local English and Thai language newspapers, also from Japan, Singapore and many from Europe and the United States. Later I normally go to various meetings, often attending sessions at universities, particularly at Chulalongkorn University. I find these very interesting, whether related to Thailand, Southeast Asia, ASEAN or sometimes a broader subject like the policies of the superpowers in Southeast and East Asia.
“Then it is working lunches where I can sometimes meet important people in their places of work. For example, I just met the Thai Minister of Defence. However, most afternoons I am in the office. This is a time for communication with the people. If someone has something to ask me, this is the time.
“In the evenings, it is receptions or parties. This is part of the job, not really for amusement, but sometimes it is entertaining.”
Ambassador Bayer said he often takes part in ceremonies or trips arranged by the Thai side, like the recent visit by a group of ambassadors to a Burmese refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.
“I am also ambassador to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, which means that every month I visit one or two or sometimes all of these countries. For example, I organized a visit from our foreign ministry to Myanmar and Thailand that took place from May 8 to 12 – the first two days in Myanmar and the last two in Thailand. I had to go to Myanmar three times to prepare the trip.
“This year we are particularly busy. Actually it started with the Polish presidency of the European Union which began in the second half of 2011.
Time permitting, he likes to travel outside Bangkok. For example, he attended the International Horticultural Exposition Royal Flora Ratchaphruek 2011 in Chiang Mai. “My wife and I seized the opportunity to go there by car. We visited a number of other provinces, including Lampang, Lamphun, Chiang Rai and Phrae.
“I have been to Phuket once, but I was much more impressed with Phang Nga Bay. This is a magnificent place indeed,” the ambassador said.
The Polish community in Bangkok is ‘very small,’ less than 100 people, and probably even fewer Thais live in Poland – “maybe staff in Thai restaurants in Warsaw,” says the ambassador.
He admits that official relations between the two countries “have been neglected for some time by both sides.
“After the military takeover here in 2006, there were hardly any high-ranking visits from the EU. Then our deputy foreign minister came here in September 2008, followed by the visit of the Thai deputy foreign minister to Poland.”
In May this year the Polish foreign minister paid an official visit to Thailand, which did much to re-establish relations.
“It is possible that our prime minister will visit Thailand at the end of this year. There will be the Asian-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held in Laos in November with many heads of states, governments and foreign ministers joining.
“As for bilateral trade, the total amount is about one billion US dollars, with the balance favoring Thailand by seven or eight to one. Poland imports automotive and chemical products as well as machinery, electronics and clothing.
“There are some small Polish investments in Thailand. The biggest is a manufacturer of medical equipment in Songkhla province. The factory supplies Thai hospitals and clinics and also exports its products to many countries all over the world. The same company plans to invest around Chiang Mai. They are very satisfied with the conditions here.
“Not many Polish tourists come here – only about 25,000 in 2011, but the figure is increasing. We issue about four to five thousand visas to Thais per year, which is not very many.
“In the way of cultural exchange, we had a group of folk singers from Poland last year and some soloists, a violinist and a pianist, on separate occasions. We had a concert on the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our countries in May, so there is some movement in this sphere.
“As for sport, in 2010 Poland participated in the 40th King’s Cup soccer tournament held in Nakhon Ratchasima, which was also attended by Singapore and Denmark. Poland beat Thailand 3-1, and Denmark won the cup. We have a number of Polish Muay Thai boxers who train here and compete from time to time.”
The embassy employs 10 Poles and seven Thais. Poland’s honorary consul in Phuket is a Thai businessman, Khun Anuwat Burapachaisri. “He is not paid and sometimes takes care of expenses out of his own pocket,” adds the Ambassador.
“Our defense attaché is stationed in Kuala Lumpur because we have a much closer relationship with Malaysia at the moment in terms of military cooperation. The government has ordered Polish-made PT-91 tanks, which are well suited to the local conditions there.”
On the personal side
The ambassador’s favorite hobby is languages. “Strictly speaking, this is not a hobby since I am a professionally trained linguist – a sinologist. This is my occupation. I can write Chinese calligraphy, which is artistry with the brush. I am also very fascinated by various scripts, including Latin.
“I love travelling and reading, especially history, but I am not fascinated by computers. For me this is a tool, not an instrument. I am interested in information and not informatics. These are two different things. I like also geography, international relations, cross country driving, weightlifting and spicy cuisine.
“I like most things in Thailand. I hate snow, frost and ice.” And he doesn’t like the tendency here to put ice in beer. “I always say, I want to drink beer, not water with drops of beer in it. Absolutely not!” he says, laughing.
“I love the hot climate and very spicy food, so this is the place for me. Our maid was twice admitted to a clinic because she tried to eat what she had prepared for me. It was too spicy for her, and she is Thai.
“I like the people because they are easy going, easily accessible and communicative, although sometimes slow in action. You are not supposed to move and act quickly in this climate, so it is quite natural.”
Ambassador’s wife attacked
Ambassador Bayer has good reason to believe there’s not enough done by the Thai authorities to protect tourists. His wife recently suffered serious injury after being attacked by robbers in broad daylight in Bangkok.
“It happened on May 9 while I was in Myanmar with my minister. A guy on a motorcycle tried to snatch her bag on Sukhumvit Soi 24. She was attacked while standing on the pavement close to the road with two other ladies. The motorcycle passed by her closely and the man riding pillion tried to grab her bag from her shoulder. She held it very tightly by a short belt as they dragged her along a little bit before she fell to the ground and broke a bone.
“However, she was courageous and strong enough to pull the guy from the bike to the ground. The bike fell and both men fell. They hit the ground very hard and were probably badly bruised. Afterward my wife went to the hospital.
“She reported the incident to the police but they were very late and seemed very reluctant to come. They came after one hour or more. So, we are absolutely not satisfied with the police reaction!
“I told my people at the embassy to be careful when going out,” the ambassador added.