Sharp, vibrant and dedicated to her country, the ambassador answered all questions, including the sort that tends to make many diplomats uncomfortable. During an interview at the ambassador’s Bangkok residence it was a pleasant surprise to meet and speak with His Excellency Mehmet Suat Akgün, Turkish Ambassador to Brunei Darussalam, who was visiting his wife.
Mrs Akgün graduated from university in 1990 and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Ankara in 1993 after placing at the top in her entrance exams. “I was assigned to one of the most important departments in the ministry Policy Planning, a department which has an overview of everything. So, I started out in a sort of lucky way at the ministry.
“From the start I was getting a general perspective on foreign policy and diplomatic relations,” said Mrs Akgün. Later she was chosen along with a colleague to attend the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, where she earned a Master’s degree and met a lot of colleagues who are now in the EU hierarchy.
After finishing at the College of Europe she was immediately posted to the Turkish mission to the EU in Brussels. “This was my first posting and it was exciting because it was the time when Turkey was concluding its Customs Union with the EU.” She stayed three years in Belgium and her next assignment was a “rotation post” in Uzbekistan, where she was third and then second secretary at the Turkish embassy in Tashkent.
After two years in Uzbekistan she returned to the MFA in Ankara and was assigned to the EU department.
Her next posting was Washington DC for two years, and that’s where she married Mr Akgün, who was at the time posted to the Turkish embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan. After the marriage she took a one-year leave from the ministry because the newlyweds couldn’t get posted together.
“I went back to the EU department in Ankara and then was made Deputy Director General (DDG) at Policy Planning, where I started out. Being a DDG is the pathway to an ambassador’s rank in our system. My husband and I stayed together close to five years in Ankara before I came here.
“This is my first ambassador’s post the term is normally four years. I had never visited Thailand before I came to take charge of our embassy. I found out that I was coming here while on an official visit to China. We arrived in Beijing late at night. I had just gotten off the plane and was feeling jet-lagged when our foreign minister phoned and said: ‘You are going to Bangkok as Ambassador’.
“I started my term here in February 2017. I have now been in Thailand one and a half years. and I honestly think that working in Asia is an enriching experience. I feel very lucky to be in Thailand, such a dynamic country.
“Our embassy in Bangkok opened in 1958. There are four Turkish diplomats including myself at the embassy and five Thais. We are also accredited to UNESCAP. I was accredited ambassador to Laos when I first came here, but at the end of last year we opened an embassy in Vientiane. We now have embassies in all ASEAN countries. Indeed, with 240 missions abroad, we have the fifth largest global diplomatic network.”
“To this end, we will soon be signing a declaration of intent between our two culture ministries. We are planning a lot of activities that will be starting in a couple of months. Among these activities are a musical presentation from Turkey in December, as well as film and food festivals, children’s puppet and art shows, an archeology seminar and so on.
“Besides vibrant bilateral relations, Thailand and Turkey also cooperate in a number of multilateral platforms, especially UN related. ASEAN is now a big focus for us, and we entered into a sectoral dialogue partnership last year. We are very thankful that Thailand supported us in this respect. We have a special relationship with ASEAN and we will be doing a lot of projects with ASEAN countries. When Thailand takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN next year, we will have even more contacts with Thailand also in this context.
“The trade volume between our two countries is about US$2.1 billion both ways. We are importing from Thailand products like diesel engines and parts, fibers and sun panels. We export pipes, wheat, nylon fibers, diesel engines and parts. We export and also import car parts and chemicals. The trade balance is in Thailand’s favor, but actually we have recorded a big increase in exports in recent years. We are in the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with Thailand and we’re hopeful this will help increase trade both ways.
“What we are hearing is that Thai tourists who visit Turkey are very impressed, have a great time and that they want to go back for more. This encourages more of our Thai friends to visit. Turkish Airlines with its large network is extremely convenient in this regard. They offer a nine-hour direct flight from Bangkok to Istanbul twice every day.
“There are also direct flights between Phuket and Istanbul. We started the route in July 2017 which was the 300th international destination for Turkish Airlines. Turkish Airlines also brings many tourists from Latin America, northern Europe and Russia to Thailand. Actually, the Bangkok route is one of the most profitable for the airline.
“Thai tourists are particularly impressed with Cappadocia in central Turkey. It is a very special place, about three hours by car from Ankara. It’s known for unique geographical formations that look like chimneys. It was a location for one of the Star Wars movies. You can take balloon flights over the chimneys, which is something Thai visitors tell us they really enjoy. The region has a very long history and was an enclave for early Christians. There are many ancient underground cities that visitors can tour.
“Not all Turkish citizens living abroad register themselves but judging from those Turkish citizens who come by for consular matters we estimate there are 2,000 to 2,500 Turks in Thailand. Around 900 Thai nationals reside in Turkey, mostly employed in the service sector. There are about 400 Thai students and some spouses as well, and some Thais with CP Company, which has an investment in Turkey.”
“The population is about 80 million people, half of them under the age of 31. It is a very young, vibrant and well-educated society. We are growing really fast, and we are attracting significant FDI and a lot of international visitors for purposes other than tourism: Turkey is a magnet for people seeking quality health care and education. A lot of university students from around the world are coming to Turkey.
“Our economic development allows us to go out into the world and make our own contribution. Turkey today is providing official development and humanitarian aid to other countries in the amount of over US$8 billion. This made us the largest donor in the World in 2017.
“The development of Turkey has been quite phenomenal. Our economic capability has grown tremendously and we reported 7.4% growth last year. On average we’ve had around 5-6% growth for many years. We have been using this economic development to make big investments both in Turkey and our neighboring environment. We are in the middle of a region with a population of 1.6 billion people. I am observing intently the dynamic projects that Thailand is undertaking in terms of regional connectivity and we are doing the same thing.
“We are carrying out projects for the enhanced connectivity of Central Asia such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipelines and Baku- Tbilisi-Kars railway line.
“We are aiming to create a synergy between our Trans- Caspian East-West Middle Corridor Initiative (Middle Corridor) and the Belt and Road initiative. Edirne-Kars High Speed Railway is a strategic project for Asia and Europe. It will constitute an integral part of the Euro-Asia Transport Corridors, connecting with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.
“It is a crucial component of the Trans-Caspian East-West Middle Corridor. It plays an indispensable role in reviving the Modern Silk Road, facilitates uninterrupted connection between Asia and Europe. Edirne-Kars High Speed Train will be of vital importance in completing the missing links along the Middle Corridor. Marmaray, inaugurated in 2013, provides uninterrupted railway connection between Asia and Europe traversing the Bosphorus.
“In 2016, we opened the undersea tunnel called the “Eurasia Tunnel.” It is the first two-level undersea road tunnel in the world. The impressive civil engineering project significantly improves commuting times for citizens and businesses in Istanbul and allows vehicles to cross between Europe and Asia under the Bosphorus Strait. The 14.5 km tunnel connects the European side and the Asian sides with 5.4 km of the route under the Bosphorus.”
The Ambassador noted that “under the Middle Corridor initiative, we are pleased to note that the Baku- Tbilisi-Kars railway has become operational as of October 30, 2017. This new connection will greatly facilitate the connection between Beijing and London via Istanbul.
“We are also nearing completion of one of the largest airports in the world. Istanbul New Airport will open on October 29, our Republic Day. It will be 76 million sqm in area, four times as big as the airports of Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Beijing, with a starting capacity of 90 million passengers per year which will be brought up to 200 million.
“The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline just became operational. It forms the most important link in the southern gas corridor from the Caspian Sea which provides natural gas to Europe. So we are also contributing to the energy security of Europe. The Trans- Anatolian section of the corridor will carry six billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey and 10 billion to Europe. This is a very important link. While we are working on megaprojects like these, we are also striving to extend the commercial and economic benefits they bring to the people of Turkey and the region.”
“Consider, in Europe some governments faced failure because they have tried to take in far fewer people who had been forcibly displaced. Taking in 3.5 million Syrians and giving them education, health and various social services is a big undertaking. The last figure I have is that we’ve spent more than US$31 billion on care for the Syrian refugees. Only less than 7% of them are in camps.
“We have now special regulations in force that allows them to work. They can work as those under temporary protection. It has been a successful social experience because Turkish people have been very welcoming to these people after seeing how their country has been torn apart and that they need to be helped. Helping those in need is a policy that is backed by our people.”
When asked about relations between Turkey and other neighbours, the ambassador said: “Enhancing political dialogue and cooperation with neighbours and the countries in our wider region is a priority. So, we have established High Level Strategic/Cooperation Council mechanisms with 23 countries, increasing our bilateral trade volume by up to six or seven-fold.”
Asked if Greece was one of them, and also about bilateral relations, she replied: “Greece is one of them. In fact, we signed 54 agreements in this context. But there are some issues between Turkey and Greece concerning the Aegean Sea which is a common sea between Turkey and Greece.
“The freedom of the high seas and the air space above, which now both coastal states and third countries enjoy, should not be impaired. Turkey and Greece being the two littoral states have legitimate rights and interests in the Aegean Sea. These involve their security, economy and other traditional rights recognized by international law.
“International airspace over the high seas is not under the sovereignty of any nation. According to international law, the breadth of national airspace has to correspond to the breadth of territorial sea. So, one cannot have a 10 mile ‘national air space’ over territorial waters of 6 miles. Therefore, Turkey’s basic line has been that the meaningful and result oriented negotiations to be held between Turkey and Greece should be the only way for a settlement of the Aegean issues.
“By the way, President Erdoan paid an official visit to Greece last December, which was the first official visit at this level between Turkey and Greece since 1952.”
Asked about Armenia, the Ambassador pointed out: “We were one of the first to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, providing humanitarian aid and supporting its integration with regional institutions. But favorable conditions for diplomatic relations with Armenia have not materialized.
Turkey’s successful fight against terrorism at the door
“Successfully concluding the Operation Euphrates Shield last year, we cleared our borders with Syria from DAESH and established a safe haven free of terror, enabling the displaced Syrians to return. We are currently fighting a number of terrorist organizations that present risk and threat to our national security, in addition to DAESH, also the PKK, PYD and YPG. Our counter-terrorism operations are carried out with zero civilian casualty; and on the basis of international law and in accordance with our right to self defence.
“Our resolve to fight against these terrorist organizations is firm. This is the understanding behind our full support to all international efforts to this end since day one.
“You need to be a strong country both economically and politically in order to carry out effective counter-terrorism operations. We are also calling upon our friends to display solidarity with us for our fight against PYD/YPG.
“We are also faced with the group, the Fettullah Organization (FETÖ). As you may know there was a terrorist coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. It was hatched by this organization, which is like a cult. It has concealed itself in the middle of Turkish society under the banner of a religious leader called Fethullah Gülen who professes to be an Imam of the world.
“His ultimate aim seems to be, according to what he preaches, the leader of a caliphate stretching around the world. He has created a big cult-like enterprise where he has set up media houses to shape public opinion, schools inside and outside Turkey – so it is almost 750 schools worldwide. In some places their schools are being closed down or put under state control.
“His radical cult calls itself a charitable organization, but is involved in money laundering, financial crimes, its members who on the surface may appear to be just like you or me, are consumed with working toward achieving their leader’s nefarious ends. There is no doubt that FETÖ wanted to take over the Turkish state.
“They might be teachers in a school in a small village in Africa or they might be teachers in Asia. But FETÖ’s goal has been to obtain finances and influence in order to infiltrate the Turkish government and sometimes the governments of the countries where they are based. They are using charitable ideas to reach people’s minds, to indoctrinate and recruit.
“They bombed our Parliament and planned to assassinate our President and Prime Minister on July 15, 2016. Bombs were falling in my neighborhood in Ankara one Friday night. We had just come back home from work and started to eat dinner, hoping for a nice weekend, and then everything changed.
“All of a sudden jets started to fly really low. It was like they would smash against our apartment. I went to the window and saw four jets flying low over Ankara. They took over TV stations and they shot at the people and officers who tried to stop them. They bombed the intelligence and police headquarters in the middle of Ankara.
“These terrorists had been concealing their people in the military and in bureaucratic organizations, waiting for the right moment to launch a coup to take over the Turkish state.
“That night they killed 251 people, injured more than 2000, bombed our parliament, which is very close to my home in Ankara. They were dropping bombs from planes and shooting from helicopters at people on the streets both in Istanbul and Ankara. The chief of general staff of the Turkish armed forces was kidnapped on that night.
“To be clear, it wasn’t the Turkish army that staged the terrorist coup two years ago. It was a group within the army that was working for Gülen. He was steadily infiltrating his men into important positions in Turkey. Lower ranking officers – Gülen disciples, together with FETÖ affiliated civilians were running the operation, this terrorist attack. Without hesitating a second, our people gave their lives standing against the plotters on July 15th and thwarted a very sinister plan. We now mark July 15th as Democracy and National Unity Day.
“We are very protective of our democracy and are determined to fight FETÖ with what it despises most, democracy, rule of law and morality. We are now bringing Gülen’s group to justice for their crimes. Hundreds of court cases bring to surface the dark underbelly of this organization. Investigations into its structures are under way in many countries, its global crime apparatus is shrinking.”
Rising above challenges
“Although Turkey went through some internal and external challenges, it is a fast developing country which is negotiating membership in the EU - its strategic foreign policy objective; is a founding member of OECD, Council of Europe, member of NATO, OIC, strategic partner to African Union, G-20 member, a key partner in security and energy issues in its region and beyond. A country whose production used to be agriculture-driven, Turkey is today an industrial producer, exporting 72% of its automotive productions, its army today using defense industry products made domestically, including frigates, attack helicopters, UAVs which are also exported.
“My country has a very rich culture and many-layered history that predates Stonehenge. The world’s first coin was minted in Anatolia. The world’s first written peace treaty was made between the Egyptians and Hittites of Anatolia at Kadesh. Turkey is home to the well-known War of Troy, as well as to two of the seven wonders and two of the three libraries of antiquity (Ephesos and Pergamon).
“From the historical Blue Mosque or the Ottoman Topkapı Palace to the contemporary project of the first three-level subsea tunnel in the world to connect the two sides of Istanbul, Turkey is a land where cutting edge modernity meets the beauty of the traditional, and I want to take this opportunity to invite all our Thai friends to come and visit my country of marvels.”
“My daily routine varies a lot from day to day. There is of course routine diplomatic work done in my office but there are also many things I have to do outside the embassy like meet with officials and attend diplomatic functions. I don’t have a lot of free time, but when I do I like to read, shop and take photographs. Sometimes it’s just window shopping, and actually that’s a way for me to get a sense of amazing Thai culture. Being a woman gives me an edge in discovering Thai traditional ways, because I think women tend to look more into the details of crafts, art and fashion.”
In addition to Turkish Mrs Agün can also speak French, German and English. “As for Thai, I haven’t had the time to thoroughly go into it. When I do something I want to do it properly.”
CV of Her Excellency Evren Dağdelen Akgün
Her Excellency Mrs Evren Dağdelen Akgün was born in Ankara March 9, 1968 and is a graduate of Agnes Scott College (Georgia, USA), Faculty of International Relations. She holds an MA from the College of Europe (Brugge, Belgium). She joined the MFA in 1993. Since that time Ambassador Akgün has served in the following positions:
1993 -1995: Attaché, Policy Planning Department, MFA.
1995 -1998: Third Secretary, Permanent Delegation to the EC (EU), Brussels, Belgium.
1998-2000: Third Secretary, Second Secretary, embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
2000 -2001: Second Secretary, EU Department, MFA.
2001-2003: Second Secretary, First Secretary, embassy in Washington DC, USA.
2004 -2007: First Secretary, Chief of Section, EU Department.
2007 -2011: Counsellor, Permanent Delegation to the EU, Brussels, Belgium.
2011-2013: Head of Department, EU Department, MFA.
2013 -2017: Minister, Deputy Director General for Policy Planning, MFA.