By Maxmilian Wechsler
Before entering the large embassy compound of the Republic of the Philippines, you can’t miss the exhibition of colorful photos of the country’s tourism sites displayed along the perimeter wall fronting Sukhumvit Road. Pedestrians as well as motorists who normally move at a snail’s pace along the busy road have a good chance to view the exhibition. It is a very original idea you won’t find duplicated at any other embassy in Bangkok.
The exhibition, called “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, was launched in a media event on June 27 by Her Excellency Jocelyn Batoon-Garcia, Philippine ambassador to Thailand. During the interview in her office, Mrs Batoon-Garcia was in her trademark jovial mood; joining us was Minister and Consul General Edgar B. Badajos, second in charge at the embassy and also very pleasant.
efore getting to the business at hand, the ambassador talked about the interview of HE Mr Kesang Wangdi, ambassador of Bhutan to Thailand, in a recent issue of this magazine. She said she admired the ambassador’s traditional Bhutanese costume and also his government’s initiative to achieve “Gross National Happiness” for the slightly more than 700,000 citizens of the beautiful country.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia was born in Manila, proudly calling herself a “Manilana.” Graduating from the University of the Philippines with a bachelor of science in foreign service, she then pursued a degree in law. She joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in the early 1980s.
In her more than thirty years with the department prior to coming to Thailand to take charge of the embassy, she was given a wide variety of assignments in the Philippines and abroad. Her first ambassadorial posting was as ambassador to Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago. Based in the Venezuelan capital Caracas, she had consular or oversight jurisdiction over nineteen other countries and territories in the Caribbean. Before that she served in various capacities in the Philippine embassies in Washington D.C. and Tokyo.
In Manila, Mrs Batoon-Garcia has held positions including acting director of the Foreign Service Institute, acting assistant secretary of Personnel and Administrative Services and executive director of the Office of the United Nations and other international organizations.
“I visited Thailand for the first time while attending an ASEAN ministerial conference on energy in 1985 and I had been back a few times to attend other conferences before coming as ambassador in 2012,” said Mrs Batoon-Garcia. She took up her official duties in October and presented her credentials to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in August.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia explained that normally Philippine ambassadors are given six-year assignments abroad, during which time they may be posted in two countries. In her case, she was posted in Caracas for three and a half years, so she will be here for two and a half.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia’s husband is Evan P. Garcia, Undersecretary of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. They have a son.
Assignment in Venezuela
On her posting to Venezuela, she said: “It’s a very beautiful country with great diversity, from beaches to plains to beautiful mountain ranges. In Caracas I lived behind a mountain range. It is a very interesting place and I was there during a very interesting time.”
“I was there when the country was under the late President Hugo Chavez. President Chávez said he was a Marxist, but the overall economy really isn’t; it is more socialist. There are not many restrictions imposed on the people by the government, except for the foreign exchange. People can travel as they wish, say more or less what they want, and they can run their own company and so on. It might not be easy to establish a company, but if they go through the correct process they can do so,” said the ambassador.
Thailand and the Philippines established formal diplomatic relations in June 1949. The Philippine embassy was moved to Sukhumvit Road from another location in 1964. “We love this place – it is a very large compound with badminton and tennis courts. There are 25 people working in the embassy, both Filipino and Thai nationals,” Mrs Batoon-Garcia said.
“I would love to add more staff. We have a lot of work to do and we have to work very hard to raise awareness about the Philippines in Thailand and to increase tourism. We have quite a number of seminars and we arrange for speakers to go and speak at universities to get young people more interested in our country.
“As ambassador it is my duty to maintain and promote bilateral relations including tourism, trade and investment, cultural exchanges and basically develop relations, not just between our two governments, but also our peoples. I also attend to the needs of Filipinos in Thailand and promote their welfare. The Philippines has an embassy in every ASEAN nation.
“There are about 8,900 registered Filipino residents in Thailand. When I served in Venezuela, there were only about 135 Filipinos residing there, with 700 to 1,000 seamen visiting the country daily,” the ambassador said.
The ambassador gave some interesting trade statistics. For example, the combined trade between Thailand and the Philippines in 2012 was valued at US$7.59 billion, up from US$7.34 billion the previous year, a growth of 3.27%. According to the Thai Ministry of Commerce, the Philippines is the 12th largest destination of Thai exports. For 2012, total Thai exports to the Philippines were valued at US$4.86 billion, up from US$ 4.64 billion in 2011, a growth of 4.75%.
The Philippines is the 20th biggest importer of Thai goods. In 2012, total Thai imports from the Philippines were valued at US$2.72 billion, up from US$2.70 billion from the previous year, an increase of 0.75%.
“The Philippines’ exports to Thailand are mainly products like spare parts for cars and computers and electronic devices,” said the ambassador. “We import motor vehicles already assembled among other products. We would of course like to increase our exports to Thailand. The Philippine government is trying hard to improve its economy and one of the ways to do this is to increase production and find markets for our goods.
“A number of major Thai companies have invested in the Philippines, including Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, Siam Cement Group and Bangkok Bank. Dusit Thani Manila (Makati) is one of the hotel group’s most lucrative overseas ventures. Philippine companies are also beginning to invest in Thailand, mostly in the food and beverage sector, with San Miguel beer establishing a brewery and Thai Liwayway Food Industries putting up a factory for snack foods.
“Philippine companies are beginning to look outward, in the same way Thai companies are. We are encouraging Thai companies to invest in the Philippines and increase their trade with us. With the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community [AEC], we would like Thai companies to make the Philippines a part of their supply chain. Of course, we also want to invite our Thai friends and other foreign friends to come and visit and to find out why so many people are saying ‘It is more fun in the Philippines’.
ABOUT THE PHILIPPINES
The Republic of the Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands with a total area of about 300,000 square kilometers of both land and sea and has the fourth largest coastline in the world, at 36,289 kilometers.
The estimated population of the Philippines is around 92 million as of May 2010 with Manila as the capital. Metropolitan Manila contains 16 cities with an estimated population of over 11 million and the Greater Manila is home to about 25 million people, almost a quarter of the population of the entire country. The official language is Filipino, but there are 87 different languages spoken, and 122 local dialects. English is widely spoken.
The Philippines was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. It achieved independence in 1946 after occupation by the Japanese in World War II. Since then it has had sixteen presidents; the current president is Benigno Aquino III.
The Filipino culture is known for its color, as reflected in its iconic jeepneys, tricycles and bancas outrigger boats as well as its food and fiestas.
Some of the many tourist attractions and tourists destinations in the Philippines are: Bohol and its famous Chocolate hills and Spanish-era stone churches; Batangas, with 319 of the world’s coral species; Caminguin, with more volcanoes per square kilometer than any other island in the world; the Banaue Rice Terraces which owe their fame equally to man and Mother Nature; Calaguas Island, Camarines Norte, an unspoiled island that doesn’t even have a hotel, with visitors camping in tents; Boracay Island, Aklan, known for its beaches and parties; and the Puerto Princesa Underground River, recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia discussed at length the efforts her embassy is making to increase Thai tourism to the Philippines, and mentioned the exhibition on the embassy’s perimeter wall, as well as the first Philippines Tourism Fair at the CentralWorld, which was held from June 28-30. The fair was a showcase for tourist destinations in the Philippines, Filipino snack food, dance and music, and included live music, on-stage games, food tasting and cultural presentations. During the fair the ambassador gave several interviews to Thai media.
“Of course, Thailand has beautiful beaches, mountains and other natural attractions just as the Philippines does but ours are wonderful in their own unique way and we would love for more Thais to come and visit. We want them to know there are vacation alternatives much closer to home than Paris or Rome right here in Southeast Asia. We feel that with the advent of the AEC in 2015 it is very important to have a greater exchange of peoples in the region because this will lead to greater understanding.”
“Regarding sport, we haven’t seen too much exchange in that area, but the Thai national football team played against our national team at the AFF Suzuki Cup in Bangkok in November, with Thailand winning 2:1. Football is a new game for us in a way. It is not that we haven’t played in the past, but traditionally it hasn’t been as popular as, for example, basketball.
“As for governmental delegations, there are quite a number of regular exchanges. We don’t normally issue press releases to announce them. We have a congresswoman who is arriving at the airport today and we will meet her. She is coming here for a conference. Thailand is hosting a quite number of conferences these days,” said the ambassador.
Of course, high-level bilateral official exchanges do make the news. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra went to the Philippines in January 2012, and the previous year, President Benigno Aquino III came here. The 5th Meeting of the Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation between the Philippines and Thailand was held in Manila on June 20 - 21, with Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul in attendance.
“We have quite a few official exchanges, especially under the ASEAN umbrella. There are also a lot of conferences relating to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP),” said Mrs Batoon-Garcia, who is also the Philippine Permanent Representative to this organization.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia said her duties often take her outside of Bangkok. “I have gone across the country, from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai. I visit places where there are many Filipino residents and tourists, like Phuket, Koh Samui, Khon Kaen and the provinces surrounding Bangkok. I also travel at the invitation of the Thai government.
“My working days are very busy and we have a lot of weekend activities as well. We have about 11 consular outreaches to Filipino nationals in Thailand per year. The last one I went to was in Koh Samui, where there are many Filipino musicians and English teachers. Before that I was in Hat Yai. We invite our
Mrs Batoon-Garcia is also kept busy with the hectic social diplomatic calendar. “I try to attend every national day reception, provided I am free and in town; otherwise Minister Edgar Badajos goes.”
“We also have special projects like the Thai literacy program. Twice a year in Bangkok we regularly hold community events attended by 2,000 - 2,500 Filipinos.
“We also try to educate Filipino-Thai students so they will know about their heritage. As you know there have been a number of inter-marriages between Filipinos and Thais, and there are many children of mixed national heritage here. We want them to be able to remain connected with the country of their mother or father.
“There are also many Thais who go to the Philippines to study, and we try to help educate them beforehand so they will know something of our culture. We hold classes for that purpose once a year and we also welcome alumnus of Filipino educational institutions so they will not forget.”
On a personal note
“What I like the most in Thailand is the food. I don’t really have much of a chance to eat the street food but I have tried many food courts in malls. There’s nothing I don’t like. I am very comfortable in Thailand, except for the heat. Bangkok is hotter than Manila,” said the ambassador.
“The traffic in Bangkok is unpredictable, and this is most probably what I don’t like the most. Mind you, Manila has a lot of traffic too and I am used to it, but here it is so unpredictable.
Mrs Batoon-Garcia said that in the less than one year she has been posted in Thailand her most memorable experience was on December 5, the birthday of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “When I saw how much the people love their King I was very impressed. I attended all the celebrations.”
The ambassador noted that Thais and Filipinos “look very similar. I get mistaken for a Thai very often, anywhere and everywhere, provided I do not speak. If I do that, people address me in Thai.”
When asked what she does for relaxation in Thailand, the ambassador erupted into laughter. “I haven’t had a vacation yet, and I haven’t been able to engage in many private activities – I don’t have the time. But I do like to go to various temples, to see how they differ one from the other and to look at the art. I also go to museums, especially archeological museums. I have been to museums in Nakhon Pathom, Ayutthaya and other provinces.
I also like modern art, and when I have time I look at exhibits.
“Actually I was thinking of taking a break this weekend by going to Khao Yai,” she said, laughing again. “It will be my first real vacation in Thailand.”
Mrs Batoon-Garcia said it has been a pleasure and an honor to serve as ambassador to Thailand. “The Thai people have been very hospitable to me and the Thai government has been very cooperative, so I am very happy. This makes life so much easier for me. It is very easy to make friends here.
“The Thai and Philippine governments have no major issues. We don’t have disputes that make it difficult for me. I have developed a number of friendships with Thai and Filipinos alike. In general, Filipinos are quite comfortable in Thailand.
“I have learned to appreciate my environment anywhere I am posted and to learn from and adjust to the different places and cultures. Everywhere, I have been people have been nice and kind and I have been able to adjust well. So far I have enjoyed my stay in Thailand very much and I am looking forward to one and a half more years here, and to inviting many more people to come to the Philippines to see for themselves how much fun it is to visit my country.”