LOOKING a good deal younger than his 57 years, His Excellency Javier Andrés Becker-Marshall, ambassador of the Republic of Chile, is passionate about life in general and the country he represents. “Chile is a truly beautiful country, where in the morning you can ski in the Andes Mountains and in the afternoon take a swim in the Pacific Ocean,” he said at the start of the interview, which he asked to host in his tastefully furnished penthouse on Sathorn Road.
Chile has a population of about 17.5 million people with about 6.5 million of them living in the capital of Santiago, where Mr. Becker was born. His career with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spans 35 years. Thailand is the seventh country he has served as a diplomat and the first as ambassador. His family background is fascinating. “My father was from the south of Chile, where most of the families of German origin are settled. My great grandfather was born in 1842 in Glükstadt near Hamburg in present-day Germany and migrated to Chile in 1890. My father, who passed away four years ago, was in the Chilean military and my mother took care of my six siblings and me.”
During the interview he provided many interesting snippets, such as: “With 4,329 kilometers in length, Chile is the world’s longest country,” and, “Not a drop of rain has been recorded for over 400 years in some parts of the Atacama Desert; it is the driest place on the planet. This has attracted the most important international astronomy organizations to build 60% of the world’s biggest telescopes in the Atacama Desert because most of the year it is cloudless.”
Territorial Chile also contains around 6,000 islands and a huge number of lakes and fjords, and a big salmon industry exists in the south of the country. Chile is also one of the most seismically active countries in the world, making it a unique location for the development and testing of seismic engineering equipment.
Mr Becker was offered the posting to Thailand in April of 2011. “I became ambassador the day I arrived in Thailand, which was on September 15, 2011. I am also ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia which I visit sometimes. My previous posting was as Deputy Head of Mission at the Chilean embassy in Ottawa, Canada.
“When I first arrived here I visited many people to learn more about the country, including various ministries, government authorities, ambassadors and other people. I also went to the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board (ORDPB) near Rama VIII Bridge in Bangkok in March 2012 to gain more knowledge of the projects. I wanted to inform the appropriate authorities in Chile about the royal projects, so that possibly similar projects could be implemented in my country. Most of our agricultural production is in private hands and the government does not have much input. Only some projects get a small subsidy from the government.”
“I think what the ORDPB is doing could be a very interesting system for small communities in Chile where individuals do not have much opportunity to develop agricultural projects. If they join forces it is much better if you have the support of the government.
“In fact, I have been to several royal projects. In February 2013 I visited Ang Khang Royal Agriculture Station in Chiang Mai; in April 2014 Her Majesty Queen Sirikit Projects in Krabi province and Thungs Talay Reforestation and Conservation Projects, and the Center for Crab Development Study. My last visit was in August 2014 to the Royal Initiated Project in Saraburi and Lopburi. The trips were organized by the MFA.”
Asked how long he will be in Thailand, he said: “Chile does not put a time limit on the term of head of mission as ambassador, but normally we expect to stay around four years. As for the duration of my assignment here, I am confirmed at least until the end of next year, according to the Permanent Secretary of the MFA who visited Thailand in August. After that, I don’t know.
“As for my daily program, after arriving in the morning at the embassy (at Lake Rajada Office Complex on Ratchadapisek Road), I check messages received from the MFA in Santiago during the night. Then I have meetings with different people here to get information and stay aware of what is happening in domestic politics, for example. In the evening, I have receptions, dinners and cultural events to attend,” Mr Becker said.
“I try to travel outside of Bangkok when I can. Thailand has a lot to show and to see, such as temples and palaces. I am also interested in Thai culture and way of life. I have already been five or six times to Chiang Mai, a place I love. I spent Songkran there last year and it was a wonderful opportunity to experience the way Thai people celebrate this special occasion. I have visited Krabi twice; it is a very beautiful place for resting. I have also been to Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Mae Sot, Hua Hin and Rayong.”
Mr Becker gave some background on the growing friendship between Chile and Thailand: “Our countries established diplomatic relations on 29 October 1962, following the initiative of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In the middle of a difficult time for the world, our countries wanted to establish friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding.”
“In 1981, the Chilean government decided to expand our international ties, especially with Asia-Pacific countries. This was important for us because we have more than 4,300 kilometers of coastline. In fact the whole coast is over 6,000 kilometers. We wanted to develop an Asia-Pacific policy and decided to increase our position in Asia. We joined Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation later on.
“We knew that Pacific nations had a big future and were in a very good position for positive development, and it was only natural for us to build closer ties with these countries. This led us to open embassies in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Chile is a nation of the Pacific, committed by its geography, historical traditions and economic interests to develop and consolidate ties with the Asia-Pacific region. Our goal in the years to come is to consolidate the natural alliance between Chile and ASEAN countries.”
The first embassy of Chile in Thailand opened in 1967. The head of the Mission was a charge d’affaires. Later on, in 1981, Chile opened the embassy in Bangkok with resident ambassador.
Mr Becker said that at present the embassy in Bangkok has only two diplomats and four local staff. “We also have an export promotion office [PROCHILE] under the administration of a trade commissioner who oversees five more officers. That office has the very important task of strengthening bilateral commercial and trade relations with Thailand and ASEAN countries.
“In Chile, we regard Thailand as a good friend. We admire the beauty, the rich cultural heritage, traditions, and Thailand’s important export-oriented development. We are convinced that in many ways we are like-minded countries. The diplomatic ties between the two nations have been illustrated by fluid political and economic cooperation, as well as by positive multilateral contacts through transpacific forums. In these forums our countries have shared experiences to generate more opportunities for dialogue on the new issues of the international agenda.
“Thailand is Chile’s foremost trading partner among ASEAN countries, with a trade balance of US$ 1 billion. In October 2013, after two years of negotiations, we signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This was during the official visit of the former Chilean president to Thailand. It was a historic event for both countries, as it is the first comprehensive FTA that Thailand has signed with a Latin American country. The agreement marks a new chapter in our bilateral relationship, opening up new trade and investment opportunities and further reinforcing the economic partnership between the two countries. Now the FTA is in our Congress in the approval process, and we hope that it will come into force in the upcoming months.”
“And this year, the Thai Industrial Association, Thai Bank Association and Thai Chamber of Commerce, together with the Chilean Industrial Association, created the Thai-Chile Business Council. This is an enormous step on the way to better understanding and productivity and increase of trade.”
At present Chile imports mostly pickup trucks, engines and spare parts from Thailand for use in its mining and agricultural industries. Other imports include canned tuna fish, canned fruit and sport clothes. This amounts to around US$700 million per year. Copper, fertilizers, forestry, fishing, wine and fruit products account for about 95% of Chile’s exports to Thailand. Interestingly, the most important fertilizer company in Chile has an office in Bangkok.
The huge distance between the two countries makes cultural exchanges involving large groups of artists somewhat challenging. However, a Chilean pianist from Easter Island and a Chilean flautist visited Bangkok in 2012, and came again in October this year. “In the future we hope to bring a group to perform at the Bangkok International Cultural Festival. We are keen to take advantage of the Agreement on Cultural Cooperation between our countries to expand our cultural ties,” said Mr Becker.
“We also have signed an Agreement on Tourism Cooperation to foster the exchange of tourism experts and good practices allowing for a better understanding of our respective cultures and heritage. Every year about 10,000 Chileans visit Thailand and neighbouring countries on holiday. They really enjoyed traveling through Thailand and experiencing the country’s culture. Normally the biggest problem they might have is losing a passport. Approximately 100 Chileans live in Thailand, most of them associated with international companies. We do not have the numbers of Thai people visiting Chile,” Mr Becker said.
“Other areas of cooperation that we have identified as important are ‘trilateral’ efforts to provide technical assistance to other countries in Southeast Asia. This is in line with both countries’ policy to strengthen South-South collaboration and more sustainable development. We are also working together in the fields of astronomy and agriculture, to enhance technology and investment. There are other areas of mutual interest. For example, last year we began an ongoing project between the National Research Institute of Agriculture of Chile and Thailand’s Kasetsart University and the Royal Project Foundation, in order to introduce the grain crop quinoa in Thailand.
“As far as multilateral activities, Chile recognizes the central role played by Thailand in ASEAN, especially in the promotion of regional connectivity and the realization of the ASEAN Economic Community. We consider Thailand to be an important bridge to intensify our cooperation and engagement with ASEAN, both bilaterally and under the Pacific Alliance framework.
“Chile actively participates in other regional forums where countries have the opportunity to share a vision of cooperation and political dialogue. These include the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation, which held a meeting in Bangkok in August, as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation; the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council; and the Latin American Pacific Arc Forum.
“Within the UN framework, Chile and Thailand have been working together for many years to address transnational issues of mutual concern, such as human rights, climate change, and sustainable development.”
Moving to the subject of high-level visits between the two countries, Mr Becker noted that in 2010 Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhon paid an official visit to Chile. In August 2012, as part of the celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Surapong Tovichakchaikul visited Chile. At about the same time, Chile’s Minister of Agriculture, Luis Mayol, came to Thailand on a trip to further cooperation in the agricultural field.
“The most important Chilean visitor here was former President of the Republic of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, who came in October 2013 on the invitation of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. This was the first official visit of a Chilean head of state to Thailand. On that occasion the FTA was signed as well as the trilateral agreement of technical cooperation.”
“Thailand is a beautiful country and Bangkok is a wonderful city. I didn’t really know much about before coming here, but I have been impressed by what I have seen. Thailand has a good standard of living, and the Thai culture is amazing. The people are nice and polite, especially behind the wheel. The traffic is not very nice, I must admit, but in my country, drivers will shout bad words and use the horn excessively if you don’t take off immediately after the green traffic light comes on.
“I really like the food here. I cannot eat too spicy but I am very fond of the cuisine. We have quite a few Thai restaurants in Chile.
“My embassy has very good and close working relations with the Thai MFA. They are always very helpful. They are also good about arranging various activities and trips for us.”
The ambassador’s interests include photography, reading and travel. He speaks Spanish and English fluently and can get by in French and German.
Mr Becker met his wife Annie in Vienna, Austria. “At that time her father was the ambassador of Guatemala and I was a diplomat at the Chilean Embassy. She was working there for the UN. I met her through a friend, a classmate at a school where I was learning German.”
Since arriving here, Mr Becker has not returned to Chile. “It is too far away and since my children are not living there – my son Cristian, 25, works in the United States and my daughter Andrea, 28, lives in Switzerland – I try to spend my holidays with them.”
His biggest disappointment in Thailand, says Mr Becker is “the difficulty of learning the language.”
Which is his favourite country of those he has served in? “This is a question people always ask me. My answer is that every country has negative and positive aspects, even my own. I feel you shouldn’t judge a country by saying it is bad for this and good for that. I have had very good experiences in every country and I always arrive with a very positive attitude.
“One country where I surely had interesting experiences was Switzerland. I was accredited to the World Trade Organization and I learned a lot and liked my JOB there. Norway is beautiful, as is Colombia. I liked Washington DC as well. In Canada, it was very cold in winter, but my activities there made it possible for me to become an ambassador here. My first assignment was in Kenya – I was single then. I didn’t know much about the country before I went and it was challenging since it was my first post abroad. Every country has a special place in my life, and that’s definitely true of Thailand.”
AFTER attending law school at the Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Mr Becker joined the Diplomatic Academy ‘Andrés Bello,’ from which he graduated in 1979. He continued his studies at the International Studies Institute of the University of Chile, the Diplomatic Academy of Austria, the National Defense University in Washington DC, and the Universidad Mayor in Chile.
He joined the Chilean Foreign Service 35 years ago. As a foreign diplomat, his first assignment was as Third Secretary at the embassy of Chile in Kenya from 1980 to 1982. He was later appointed Second Secretary at the embassy of Chile in Austria from 1983 to 1985. From 1985 to 1988, he was assigned at the European Affairs Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and then in early 1988 posted to the Chilean embassy in Colombia as First Secretary. From 1990 to 1993 he served at the embassy of Chile in Norway.
In 1993 he returned to Chile to work at the Multilateral Division of the MFA. He became a Counsellor and at the beginning of 1995 was posted to the Mission of Chile to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, where he stayed until early 2000.
Returning to Chile, he performed duties as an officer at the General Directorate of International Economic Relations. He was head of the office of Air Transportation, and also had responsibilities related to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas that was negotiated during those years and never finalized.
From 2001 to 2006, he served as Political Counsellor at the embassy of Chile in Washington DC. In 2008 he was posted as Minister Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Chile in Canada.
During his career he has participated in diverse multilateral forums organized by the United Nations, including the UN Conference on Trade and Development and Commission on International Trade Law, as well as other international organizations like the Red Cross, WTO and World Intellectual Property Organization.