When Her Excellency Alicia Sonschein came to Bangkok to take her post as Argentine Ambassador to Thailand she brought along her trademark enthusiasm and keen focus on the job at hand. In an exclusive interview with The BigChilli, Ambassador Sonschein outlined her approach to strengthening the already excellent relations between the two countries.
WE are so far away but this is not an obstacle. On the contrary, this must be a driving force in our bilateral links,” Her Excellency said at the outset of interview.
“I have the privilege to have previously been posted in Thailand. That was very useful, as I got to know the Thai idiosyncrasy, culture and customs of this country. That allowed me to start working immediately after my arrival with my old and new network of contacts of Thai people of all walks of life; public and private sector alike.
“My assignment could not be better and I put the best of my knowledge to improve even more the bilateral relations between Argentina and Thailand. I work very hard with my team at the embassy as I see a wonderful potential for this relation in the future because the two countries have decided to develop even more their links.” Ambassador Sonschein met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on November 16, 2016 on the occasion of the formalization of her assignment in Thailand. “The meeting was very fruitful and was the perfect kickoff to start a new chapter of the bilateral relations,” she said after the meeting.
“I studied political science at the Pontifical Catholic University in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a bachelor´s degree in political science and international relations. In 1980 I entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and graduated from the Institute of Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship in Buenos Aires. In 1982 I had my first post as diplomat in Switzerland. It was at the General Consulate of Argentina in Zurich,” Ambassador Sonschein said.
“From the beginning of my studies I knew that I wanted to become a career diplomat and this is what I have been
doing all these years of my life. Being Ambassador of Argentina to the Kingdom of Thailand is a dream come true as I considered Thailand my second home, and I love prathet Thai and kon Thai so much!
“I arrived in Thailand for the first time in 1998 on a tourist trip with my husband, and it was love at first sight. I visited the country a couple more times and then, in 2008, I was sent as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy in Bangkok. I stayed until 2012 and then came back every year for holidays passing through Bangkok to go to India or Bhutan.
“I was appointed by Argentine President Mauricio Macri as Ambassador to Thailand in August 2016. Argentine ambassadors have no set terms. When our President recalls us, we end our mission abroad. But normally the time is four to five years in the post.
“Before coming here I worked in different places at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Departments of Cooperation, Politics, and Human Resources. But I spent most of my time at the Protocol Department heading the Direction of International visits, which dealt with the visits of high-ranking officials and head of states from all over the world including when our President went abroad.
“That post allowed me to travel around the world and visit places that normally tourists cannot have access to. I’ve been to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Canada and China, many times in the USA, Singapore, India, Japan, the Vatican, Rome, Switzerland, and several other countries in Europe as well as in Latin America.
“Normally I arrived at destinations before the president and his delegation in order to prepare and arrange all details of the official visit with the local protocol department. It was extremely challenging and risky, but I enjoyed it so much. It was very nice meeting different people from other countries and speaking other languages.
“However, my career was not homogeneous or a classic diplomatic career. I got married to an ambassador, so I decided to follow him. When he was posted abroad I took leave of my duties as a diplomat and became an ambassador’s wife. So, I swapped my ‘chapeau’ in Buenos Aires and started a different kind of work. I enjoyed so much being with him and complementing his posting. We were the perfect diplomatic couple. He was an outstanding senior diplomat with a lot of experience, culture and knowledge. I learned many things from him and we shared so many interesting experiences.
“We stayed in Dublin, Ireland, and actually we got married there; I have fabulous memories… Next we went to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. The first two years were very interesting, as the Balkan countries have a special charm. But then the Kosovo war started and my husband refused to leave the capital even though the government allowed us to do. So I decided to stay with him. We spent 72 days under the NATO bombardment. It was a very tough period but we survived and it was an extraordinary experience.”
I really like the character and culture of the people of Thailand and the superb nature of the country. I like the vibes of Bangkok and the mixture of people. I like to walk at random into the sois, and I always discover something that amazes me. It’s as simple as that. I like the storms in Thailand, the temples, the Grand Palace and the unique Thai culture. As Thailand was never colonized by any Western power, it has kept its own culture and traditions, and this is very attractive and unique in Southeast Asia.
“I travel around Thailand as much as I can. Now what I am trying to do is to go off the beaten track. I mean the places that are not so touristic; such as, Loei, Nan, Pitsanulok, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, etc. In such a way I can find the real kon Thai, practice passa Thai and enjoy more diverse experiences than what’s on offer at tourist places. Of course, I love the warm and turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, so sometimes I go there.
“In my free time I like reading French literature/novels or history. But what I enjoy most when I have time is reading the international press New York Times, Financial Times, Le Figaro, Le Monde, La Repubblica, Los Angeles Times, The Times, The Guardian, etc. It is very exciting to see how the latest news are presented in different papers. And of course I love travelling, something that is in my DNA. I do as much travelling as possible around Southeast Asian countries at this time because all are so different and fabulous. I’ve also been to India, Bhutan and Nepal many times. I like swimming, riding horses and walking in the forest.
“As a Tibetan Buddhist, I meditate every day and this is not a just hobby of course. Buddhism is the most important thing in my life and is another reason I feel so happy to be in a Buddhist country. I have been Buddhist for more than 12 years.
“There are only four officers from Argentina, including me, at our embassy here, as well as ten Thai staff. We are expecting two more diplomats as we are dealing not only with Thailand, but also with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. I am also ambassador to those countries. I find my work very intense and interesting. We have a very nice team that works in harmony which creates the perfect atmosphere to achieve our goals. We know each other very well. I am totally fascinated with the politics, economics and cultural environment of the Southeast Asian countries.
“The Governments of Argentina and the Kingdom of Thailand agreed to establish diplomatic relations in February 1955 and we have enjoyed a very cordial relationship over sixty three years of bilateral ties. Not only that, but Argentina was the first Latin-American country to establish diplomatic relations with Thailand and chose this country to open its first Embassy in Southeast Asia.
“As both are developing countries, Argentina and Thailand share similar views of the world. This enables us to act jointly in international forums on many key issues on the international agenda. These include, notably, G77 plus China and FEALAC, the Cooperation Forum of Latin America and East Asia countries. Argentina and Thailand are united by a strong friendship and this facilitates our working together bilaterally, regionally and in the international arena.
“In the more than sixty years of fruitful relationship, there have been several high-level exchanges. To mention the most relevant, President Arturo Frondizi, made the first visit of an Argentine head of state to the Kingdom of Thailand, in December 1961. On that occasion he was received by King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, as well as Prime Minister Sarit Tamarat.
“In October 1996 the then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn made an official visit to Argentina, where he met with President Carlos Menem and inaugurated an exhibition on Thailand on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In February 1997 President Menem traveled to Bangkok and was received by the King and by Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Other noteworthy exchanges have taken place at the ministerial level, and besides the current King, other Thai Royal Family members who have graced Argentina with goodwill visits are Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Princess Chulabhorn.
“As Chief of Mission here I have, since the beginning of my tenure, been totally dedicated to maintaining links with the highest authorities of the Kingdom. In particular, I’ve had interviews with Prime Minister Chan-o-cha as well as numerous members of the Cabinet and other government bodies.
“Our two countries have joined in four political and economic consultations in recent years. The last were held in Buenos Aires in 2017, and it’s expected that there will be another in Thailand in the upcoming months. In addition, it should be noted that 12 bilateral agreements have been signed in very diverse fields such as trade, culture, science and technology, among others.
“Cultural and educational activities are key to promoting mutual awareness between our peoples. We must ensure that, notwithstanding the distance, both peoples and societies meet and get acquainted. In that sense, our embassy has a very active cultural agenda. We’ve organized cinema festivals, tango performances, exhibitions, artists’ visits and so on. Also, several agreements have been signed between Thai and Argentine universities in recent years.
“Furthermore, there is a growing number of Thai high school students travelling to Argentina to complete an entire academic year. Since 2001, the Embassy has granted visas to nearly 600 students under the framework of the American Field Service cultural exchange programs. There are between fifty and sixty Thai students travelling to Argentina yearly, which makes it one of the most popular destinations of the program.
“Periodically, we celebrate, with the Thai Polo & Equestrian Club in Pattaya the Polo Cup ‘Embassy of Argentina’. This prestigious event is organized annually and has been very successful in promoting this famous sport, as well as Argentine gastronomy, culture, sport and tourism in Thailand. Also, Argentina has received several requests in recent years from different Asian countries, regarding in particular providing support for training trainers in football.
“Talking about tourism, around 66,000 Argentines visited Thailand in 2017. As for Thais visiting our country, that number is close to 2,000. Around 130 Argentines residing in Thailand are registered with our Embassy.
“Thailand is our most important partner in the field of technical or South-South cooperation in Southeast Asian region. We are, of course, keen on expanding this cooperation and open to receiving new proposals.
Asia has become one of the most important regions in the world, not only in demographic and economic growth terms but also due to a growing international presence. In this framework, the continent in general and Southeast Asia in particular constitutes one of Argentina’s top foreign policy priorities.
“In that framework, given the undeniable regional importance of Thailand in Southeast Asia and of Argentina in Latin America, it is essential that both nations continue their efforts to further strengthen these bonds of friendship, especially after the accession of Argentina to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.
“In 2019 Thailand will celebrate, according to its roadmap, general elections and will also hold the chairmanship of ASEAN, which will be a focal point of enormous importance for relations not only within Southeast Asia, but with the rest of the world. It will be an opportunity to position itself in the economic-commercial and investment levels, and Argentina is keen to be part of it.
“During the year 2017, the total trade between the two countries was approximately for a total of US$1.7 billion. Argentine exports to Thailand were close to US$588 million and imports to US$1.1 billion.
“Among the main products exported during the last year stand out: Flour and pellets of soya, wheat, leather, shrimps and prawns, steel pipes, pharmaceutical products and medicines, among others. On the side of imports from Thailand, they are mainly concentrated in inputs for the automotive industry: diesel or semi-diesel engines, auto parts, among others.
“Throughout the last years, our embassy has organized several events to promote certain Argentine gastronomic products, with the aim of increasing their visibility and spreading awareness of their quality among the Thai public. As an example, numerous beef and wine tastings have taken place in important hotels and clubs in downtown Bangkok, as well as in the Official Residence of the Ambassador.
“I am very proud to say that Argentina was the ‘Partner Country’ of this Fair, whose pavilion was inaugurated by the Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, the Argentine head of delegations, myself and other high officials.
“My country has also several investment opportunities in multiple fields. The power of its rivers, the ocean tides, strength of its winds and the fertility of its soil are only some of the wonders offered by a wide variety of opportunities in energy generation and access.
“The ample availability of natural resources, added to the outstanding technical skills of human capital and the long-term public policies establish an excellent scenario for the materialization of investment in Argentina. This investment can stimulate employment, lead to societal transformation, develop the skill set of human capital, and create broad-based wealth, which is one of the main objectives we Argentines seek for our country.
“Let me go quickly over the largest opportunities that my country provides in this field. Renewable energies, for example, are a key sector within the country’s productive strategy, as it is an industry with great export potential and different business and investment opportunities.
“Argentina has a growth plan to integrate renewable sources in its electrical matrix and foresees its share of renewable energies rising from 8% by the end of 2017 to 20% by 2025. Meeting this objective implies clear investment opportunities of US$15 billion over the next eight years for the construction and start-up of projects for the production of wind power, solar energy, biomass plants, biogas and small hydroelectric usage.
CV of H.E. Alicia Sonschein
Full name: María Alicia Cuzzoni de Sonschein
Place of birth: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Marital status: Widow of Ambassador Adrian Sonschein
Religion: Tibetian Buddhist
Degrees: Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science Specialized in International Relations from Argentina Pontifical Catholic University (UCA), Buenos Aires, Argentina.
• 1980: Graduated from Foreign Service Institute, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Worship of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
• 1982-1987: Consul at Argentine General Consulate in Zurich, Switzerland.
• 1988-1993: Protocol Department, MFA.
• 1994: Work at the Ministry of Economy, Buenos Aires.
• 1994-1995: Chief of Private Secretary to the Secretary of Communications of the Office of the Argentine President - Government House.
• 2000: Humanitarian Aid at White Helmet Commission Department, MFA.
• 2001: Department of International Cooperation, MFA.
• 2003: Department of Human Resources, MFA.
• 2005: Department of Sub-Saharan Africa, MFA.
• 2008-2012: Deputy Head of Mission, Argentine Embassy in the Kingdom of Thailand.
• 2013: Coordinator of Social Security Affairs, MFA.
• 2016: Ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand, Kingdom of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
• Between 1988 to 1994: Member of Presidential Delegation to various countries.
• New Protocol Guidelines in the Argentina Republic.
National Foreign Service Institute -1995.
• International Cooperation along the Danube River Basin.
“Gabchikovo - Nagymaros: Dispute over Danube waters.
Institute of International Politics and Economics, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Also articles in the publication of Universitas Danubiana, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
• Knight of the Order of the Southern Cross of the Federative Republic of Brazil.
• Knight of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Mali.
“Among the most strategic sectors is also the oil & gas sector, which leads the ranking of announcements since President Macri took office with almost US$50 billion, and which was revitalized after the agreement to promote Vaca Muerta (second reserve of shale gas and fourth of shale oil, worldwide).
“Mining is another of the important sectors in the strategy of attracting productive investments, where the country is becoming increasingly prominent on the global stage especially for the opportunities offered by production of lithium. Argentina’s lithium reserves covers 750,000 km2 of areas of high potential for sustainable mining exploitation, being 75% still unexplored. In lithium, for example, it has the capacity to multiply the current production 11 times, going from 13,000 tons to almost 150,000 tons. Something very similar happens with copper, which has the potential to multiply its production nine times.
“The current infrastructure plan is extremely ambitious, offering more than US$50 billion investment projects in roads, railways, water & sanitation, irrigation, ports & airports, urban mobility, telecommunications and public housing. Additionally, there is a wide range of other sectors with much potential from agribusiness to real estate and tourism which comprise more than 10 billion in investment opportunities.
“Today Argentina has an economic program based on investment and exports as engines of growth. For the first time in 10 years, it presented a budget to balance its public accounts in 2019 and to achieve a primary surplus in 2020. This will allow it to move towards a solid and autonomous economy, finally breaking the cycle of recurrent crises, permanent deficits, exchange rate instability and inflation.
“The national government is committed to this structural transformation and continues with the plan of essential reforms to boost investments, improve productivity and increase competitiveness, because that is where real quality employment exists.
“Argentina, as a member state of the Group of 20, held, throughout 2018, its presidency. In that framework, between November 30 and December 1, 2018, the leaders of the world’s largest economic powers met in Buenos Aires for the G20 summit, and, at its culmination, agreed to subscribe a declaration building consensus for fair and sustainable development. The event was a success at all levels, in which Argentina assumed its place as a mediator, that required great diplomatic skills, proving to be up to such a sensitive role.
“During my years as Ambassador I will always ensure that the Argentine Embassy before the Kingdom of Thailand is focused on the importance that our government places in Asia in general and Southeast Asia in particular and, therefore, I have set clear rules to strive and to advocate for a realistic, proactive and complementary relationship with one of the most important countries in Southeast Asia, which is the Kingdom of Thailand.”