HUMANITARIAN, linguist, sculptor, musician and a man with a well developed sense of humour, The Ambassador of the Netherlands to Thailand, His Excellency Joan Boer, also happens to be a seasoned diplomat with extensive experience in Africa and South America before his appointment here.
That sense of humour fits in nicely with the herd of 28 ‘cows’ that greets visitors to the Dutch embassy on Wireless Road, (See box story) even though Mr Boer himself is not directly responsible.
Relations between the Netherlands and Thailand began way back in 1604. The current embassy premises were acquired in 1949, though the first consulate opened in 1858 – a result of the growing number of Dutch ships calling with goods to trade at the port of Bangkok. The consulate was upgraded to consulate-general in 1881 and to an embassy in 1957.
The ambassador said the embassy is “a fantastic place and also a part of the Thai cultural heritage. It is a compound with a history, as one of the princes who objected to the constitutional reform in 1932 lived here. Many Thai people who come here know the history of this building, so they like to come here.
“Presently there are about 42 people working at the embassy. Ten are Dutch nationals and the rest are Thais, including two who can speak Dutch, which makes a difference. We also have four gardeners because the garden is large and really important to us,” Mr Boer said.
Joan Boer was born on January 9, 1950 in Haarlem, the Netherlands. “I have been happily married for 40-plus years and we have two grown children. We always say it is still a relationship under construction. It is fun. My wife is really my soul mate.”
Highlights of his career include: A master’s degree in Anthropology from the Free University of Amsterdam.
After working with the Netherlands Volunteer Service in Kenya and Rwanda, Mr Boer joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 1979 to work in matters involving science and technology, and thereafter headed the ministry’s food aid, agriculture and food security unit.
He was head of the MFA’s South America Department and held a directorship in urban and rural development. He was appointed deputy director-general of international cooperation in 1998, in charge of bilateral development co-operation and overall policy development, a post he held for almost six years.
From 2004 to 2009 he served as ambassador to the Organization of Economic and Social Development (OECD) in Paris. During that period he was also chair of the OECD Committee on External relations, in 2007 and 2008. In 2009 he was appointed an inspector of the Foreign Service, a post he held until his appointment as ambassador to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Working his way around the world
“I made my first trip to Thailand in the same year I joined the MFA  in my capacity as a project officer working on science and technology matters; one of the elements of the job was agricultural innovation. I was working with Chiang Mai University on a program to provide assistance with integrated fish farming, which you see all around now, but then it was a modern innovative technology for small farmers.
“At that time Bangkok was still very rural in a certain sense, no high-rise buildings or Skytrain. The traffic was already difficult, however, but not as dense as nowadays. Back then I also had projects going in countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Chile, Peru and in Africa.
“My most extensive field experience is actually in Africa. Before starting with the MFA I worked in Tunisia, Kenya and Rwanda. The Central African Republic is the only African country I have never been to over the years. I have been to all the rest several times. The same applies for Asia and Latin America. I have visited Indonesia about 20 times and Thailand 10 times during the past 30 years.
“I am a traveller, and what I have found is that if you come back to a place after a couple of years, you see things that you don’t notice if you live in the country. This is one of my ‘specialties’ – watching and comparing countries’ progress and development over the years,” the ambassador said.
Asked to name the most difficult working environment for him, he replied: “I found Chad [in West Africa] difficult at certain moments. Of course, Rwanda just after the genocide was also extremely difficult, and so were Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was very dangerous to work in Columbia at the time because the drug cartel war was raging on. In comparison, Thailand is a relatively easy assignment.”
Coming to Thailand
“I became ambassador in Thailand in 2011 and arrived just before the general elections and not long before the flooding started. At that time I was not yet accredited, which was actually a very big advantage because I could move around more freely. In that time I visited some refugee camps along the Myanmar border without a protocol, just in a small group. This is the kind of visit where one learns the most.
“I also went to other parts of the country, like in the Northeast, and I was talking to people without them knowing I was an ambassador. The first trip I took was by train and it was really fun.
“Now, when people see the diplomatic plates on my car, the glass will come down between me and the people. Everything is arranged, and the Thais are very good in that, but to be an ambassador puts you in a cocoon in a sense. That’s what I find difficult sometimes, because I enjoy walking in the city, going up-country without a driver, looking around and talking to people about what’s going on here and there.
“I can go anywhere I want, but I am not really free as to what I can wear. For example, I can only wear a T-shirt when I am at the beach, not when I’m walking in town. We have about 10,000 Dutch people living here and as I am often in the media they know me…It is like living in a glass-house.”
Mr Boer has a strong linguistic background and speaks several languages but his frustration at not yet attaining fluency in the Thai language is apparent. “Thailand is the first country I have been posted where I don’t speak the language, and this is a terrible handicap. This is one of the things I am missing.
“When you put me in Kenya, my Swahili is not bad, but here…at times I know the words but I don’t understand what the people are talking about. I like to contact people and to listen to their stories. Not being able to express myself adequately with words, I have to depend on my eyes and smile to get close to people.”
Working and living in the Dutch environment at the embassy takes away some of the incentive to learn Thai, he said.
The term for an ambassador for the Netherlands is from three to six years. Mr Boer’s term here lasts until mid-2015, making it more than four years, after which he will probably retire. The retirement age in the Netherlands is now 65 years, but it will go up to 67. Noting that the retirement age in Thailand is 60, Mr Boer questioned whether it makes good economic sense to require that people retire when they are still productive, and then making them dependent upon pensions and social welfare.
“This is a big issue in Europe. We have 25 percent of the world’s gross national product, but a large part of it goes into social spending. That means that our competitive position is more difficult these days as compared to regions with less social provisions. You can call it a euro crisis, but it is also due to our social development model in a sense.
“However, I would rather retire in Europe than, for example, in the United States, because the pension system in Europe is far better than anywhere else in the world. You have to pay for it, but it impacts your life favorably in later days.”
“I normally rise between 5.30 to 6am, because when the birds start singing that’s when I should start my day,” said Mr Boer jovially. “I read Twitter a bit, then some swimming to keep up my physical condition. I also do a bit of reflection in the swimming pool − to develop ideas for the day.
“I start the workday around 8am making the rounds at the embassy, asking the consulate people whether there’s something special that’s come up from the day before. A normal working day has a couple of appointments inside and outside the embassy. I like to go outside the embassy because then I can see what is going on. I spend about one week each month in Myanmar.
“I don’t travel every month to Lao PRD and Cambodia because we don’t have as much capacity to serve these countries. Of course, Thailand is my primary responsibility – we have around 200,000 tourists visiting Thailand yearly from the Netherlands, with the number always increasing, compared with several thousand going to Laos.
“We have 300 companies based in Thailand from the Netherlands as opposed to five or six in Laos. So, there’s a relative importance that must be weighed. Since consular and economic matters are the main reasons for being here, that dictates where we should go.”
Sights on scammers
“I spend quite a lot of my time in consular duties. Dutch pensioners may have problems with residence permits, for example. Then there are the tourists. More than 90 percent of Dutch people will return home very happy after a trip to Thailand, but sometimes there are small difficulties, brought about by scammers and other bad elements.
“For example, someone rents a motorcycle or jet-ski and when he comes back the owners will tell him there’s damage and he has to pay. There’s the issue with tuk-tuks in Phuket where the ride costs six or seven times more than in Bangkok. In worst cases people get beaten up for refusing to pay 200 or 300 baht to scammers. This is unacceptable. This is not the friendly attitude towards tourists that Thailand is known for.
“There is room to expand tourism in Thailand, but if tourists are just viewed as cows for milking, at a certain point they will stop coming.”
The Netherlands is one of 18 EU countries who recently lodged a complaint with the Phuket Governor, Maitri Inthusut, concerning scamming and tourist protection in Phuket, but Mr Boer says he tries to avoid criticizing the Thai government. “I did not participate in that visit to Phuket since I was on leave,” Mr Boer said.
“What I try to do,” continued the ambassador “is systemic solutions for our citizens. I am in contact with the Thai government about scamming and other issues. Protection is a dual responsibility. For example, many of our tourists who would never ride a motorcycle in the Netherlands enjoy riding one here. But often they are uninsured or don’t want to wear helmets, and when something happens they will start to blame the Thais. That’s not very fair and we as embassies have a role to play here towards our own citizens.
“Along with other ambassadors, I am working with very good collaboration from the Thai government to come up with solutions on scamming and other problems. We are also talking about long-stay issues. We view it as a shared responsibility, and I am putting a lot of my time into it.
“One of the results of these talks is that the Thai government has now indicated that for a business owner to take the passport of a foreigner is illegal. This is very important because when you want to rent a motorbike, for example, if the tourist has to choose between not getting the motorcycle and giving the passport, he will give the passport.
“However, when you give your passport you can’t walk away from a scam or other bad situation. If you only give a copy, you can walk away. This very much de-escalates the situation. This is one of the concrete things our group of ambassadors has been able to accomplish, together with the Ministry of Tourism and Sport. We are going to see how this works in Phuket.”
“We have a community of between 5,000 to 10,000 Dutch expats residing in Thailand permanently or semi-permanently. I don’t know how many Thai people live in the Netherlands, but I have met them in many parts of the country.
“There are about 300 Dutch companies in Thailand, including some big ones like Shell, Unilever and Foremost. One Dutch firm in Chiang Mai makes the trolleys for almost all air companies. It is a very high quality product and yields good employment. We have a jewelry factory in Hua Hin with 200 women working there. Recently we had an agricultural fair in Thailand where 70 to 80 firms turned up with new innovative products.
“Thai companies are also investing in the Netherlands. It is a two-way street. For example, PTT has a presence in the Netherlands. We recently had a very interesting visit from ten Dutch dairy farmers visiting their counterparts here in Thailand.
“One of the first questions people here ask me is, when they go to the Netherlands will they be able to find Thai food. I tell them that this is not a problem whatsoever because there are many Thai restaurants in the Netherlands.”
Mr Boer then gave more specific information on bilateral trade, saying Thailand’s imports from the Netherlands stood at US$1.15 billion in 2012. The Netherlands remains the 5th largest exporter in the EU to Thailand, after Germany, France, the UK and Italy. About 30% of Dutch exports are machinery and components for the electronics industry, and also include iron and steel, leather, plastics and optical equipment.
As for Thailand’s exports to the Netherlands, in 2012 they totaled US$4.18 billion, somewhat less than in previous years due to the crisis in the EU. The Netherlands maintained its position as the largest destination for Thai exports to the EU in 2012, reflecting its strategic geographical location. About 50 percent of Thai exports to the Netherlands are electrical supplies and appliances.
“Our embassy aims to promote Dutch culture in different ways. We hope that by organizing cultural events, Thai and Dutch people will mingle and learn from each other. We will participate in the Bangkok Dance and Music Festival in September. We are sponsoring four Dutch jazz groups to play there and we hope and know that Thai jazz artists will come and visit us.
“We also host concerts at my residence. In July we presented a concert by Dutch classical piano player Frederic Voorn, and we invited a diverse Thai audience.
“The Dutch museum, Baan Hollanda, in Ayutthaya opened on April 3. The museum is located on a historical spot where Dutch traders had a post 400 years ago. The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday. There you can learn about the history of the Dutch in Thailand, and enjoy Dutch food, like Stroopwafels and enjoy a good cappuccino before moving on,” said the ambassador.
“We were very honoured when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej sent His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Her Royal Highness Princes Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to the coronation of the Netherlands’ new King Wilem-Alexander on April 30, 2013. Their visit was very much appreciated by our Royal Family.
“There’s a continuous flow of Thai officials visiting the Netherlands and ours coming here as well. There’s no need to send Dutch politicians to Thailand to do some bargaining and so forth, as our relationship is deep and longstanding.
“We have about 100 Thai students at any moment studying in the Netherlands. Furthermore, there’s collaboration between universities – for example between Chulalongkorn University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and Kasetsart University and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in water management, and so on.
“During the floods in 2011, I was in a boat at Don Mueang floating in 1.6 meters of water, knowing that this was in the city of Bangkok. I saw a tremendous potential for assistance. We have been continually offering assistance in water management because there are many similarities to the situation in the Netherlands. The Dutch have the technology to prevent flooding, and not just that. We also have the institutional and dialogue experience to be of assistance.
“This is one of the things I would like to accomplish in my time as ambassador here. I haven’t got there as yet. It takes time. I am here for four years which is not a very long period, so I am really standing on the shoulders of my predecessors, and maybe someone will stand on my shoulders to finish the job, which is ok. You can’t expect trees to fully grow in four years.”
“My job is a lot of hard work, and frankly, sometimes I think I don’t have enough time for some of the social aspects which come with the job, like all the receptions. Fortunately I do have time to travel privately as well as officially. I have visited many places in Thailand. It’s a big country and there’s always something new, which is the fascinating part.
“I would, for example, like to visit the Northeast again and to have conversations with politicians and officials, just to see what is happening in the country without any preconceived agenda. This is what I really find interesting.”
“One thing I like very much in Thailand is the food. It is fabulous and not only in the restaurants; the street vendors also serve up fantastic food. They are specialists. It is the best cooking in town. When I go up-country and have ‘Pad Thai’ for 40-50 baht it is very good. When I go and buy food from the street food vendors in Bangkok, like along Sukhumvit Road, it is very good. I’ve never been ill from eating at these places. The Thai kitchen is so rich.”
Asked what he doesn’t like about Thailand, Mr Boer paused briefly and said that sometimes he finds the Thai people “too shy.”
“Our people are quite straightforward. Maybe we are too direct and this makes Thai people a bit shy. I find it difficult in Thailand to get into a relationship where people do not shy away but tell you what is really happening. It is complicated. I feel that the Dutch look rude in the eyes of Thais. Dutch people don’t talk so much. We look and we do.”
Appreciating and living art
“My wife always says that I have too many hobbies. We both really like modern art in all senses of the word. It is discovery. The Thai way of creating art is different from the European way, but there are similarities in techniques, etc. and that’s what I find very fascinating.
“I am an admirer of modern ballet and modern dance, and my wife and I like to dance, so whenever we have a chance to dance we will not shy away.
“My real passion is sculpting. Thailand is really a source of inspiration for me. I just went to Saraburi to buy stones from a quarry, marble and other types.
“Sculpting is like a conversation with the stone. A very slow conversation, but then again it is a reflective process. Working with new stones that behave differently from those I know from Europe is just fantastic.
“I don’t paint but my wife does. She is a portrait painter. She does a lot of portraits of people she meets here.
“We appreciate art in a broad sense – both looking at it and also doing it. My wife plays piano and I play a bit of accordion. My instrument was made in a very small Italian village called Castelfidardo where I go every time I am in Italy. I know the makers. My accordion was made in the 1950s. This brand has a very romantic sound that no other maker can produce. For sculpture I can find time; for playing accordion, much less.”
Ambassador Boer visits the Netherlands two or three times a year with his family and admitted that he misses the cooler weather back home.
THE EU Herd of Cows is the result of a joint initiative of the Netherlands Embassy in Prague and the organizers of the Cow Parade Prague in 2004. All of the life-size polyester cows in the herd were painted by artists and school children, using typical national symbols. The Dutch cow, for example, is decorated with tulips.
The aim of the project was to bring the enlargement of the EU in May 1, 2004 from 15 to 25 countries closer to the people. After accession of Bulgaria and Romania on January 1, 2007, two more cows were added. The 28th cow represents the EU and features its flag: blue with yellow stars.
On the occasion of the Dutch EU presidency in the second half of 2004, the EU Herd of Cows was adopted by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. The herd travelled to various locations in Europe and Asia and was also exhibited at the Bangkok’s Emporium shopping centre and Benjasiri Park in May 2008. The last show was at the Dutch Garden in Royal Flora Ratchaphruek 2011 in Chiang Mai. The herd no longer travels and enjoys the green compound of the embassy.