Notes from the Field

A Conversation with Thai Diplomat & Congressional Fellow Maes Suwantra

August 21, 2013

Maes SuwantraLast week, Maes Suwantra of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs visited The Asia Foundation’s headquarters to share his year-long experience as a 2012-13 Congressional Fellow that included an 8-month affiliation with the office of Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill), in Washington, D.C. Mr. Suwantra has previously served on the Ministry’s New Zealand and South Korean Desks and with Thailand’s Department of ASEAN Affairs. In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with him to learn more.

What are some highlights from your seven years with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Getting to see first-hand how diplomacy is conducted at the highest level between ambassadors and government leaders, and how all the talking points and memos translate into action is the ultimate highlight of a diplomat. When I started in 2006, my country had just had a coup, so being very new in the world of diplomacy, I spent my first year trying to explain what happened in Thailand to the world and trying to regain the trust and understanding of our allies. I started my career in the American and South Pacific affairs department, so my first jobs involved the U.S. and the relationship between Thailand and U.S.

Where are your thoughts on Thailand’s role in ASEAN, and how do you see that role changing in the coming years?

How much Thailand can help the grouping move forward depends on how much we can clean up our own house first. For the past few years, we’ve been going through political turmoil within Thailand, and this domestic political situation will limit our capability to assist newer ASEAN members and also to provide political leadership within the organization. It will be harder for us to assert ourselves within the organization if we don’t have our house in order first. Our role in the next few years will depend on how fast we can resolve the political situation in the country as well.

What are hopes for the formation of an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015?

Thailand sits in the middle of the ASEAN region; we are the land bridge for our friends in the South, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in the north we share borders with Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. We also have close relations with all the ASEAN members. Apart from its geographical location, the Thai economy is of course very integrated with all ASEAN states, both in terms of creating jobs – we provide jobs for a lot of immigrants from our neighboring countries – and also trade within ASEAN. Prior to joining the ASEAN Department, I was of the view that the Thai general public, and even the government agencies outside of the ministry of foreign affairs, weren’t really aware of the goal of integrating the ASEAN community within the next few years.

Surprisingly, once I joined, I discovered that the different agencies were already in cooperation with their counterparts, including the ICT regulatory bodies and the transportation agencies, which have a master plan for the entire region to be connected. I think we are on a path to achieving our goal of becoming an ASEAN community that’s integrated both economically and socially. We are starting to share more, but a language barrier still remains. We use English as the central language of communication, but it has been quite a task to educate an entire population of an estimated 600 million to speak a different language. Southeast Asia has been a very accepting region in terms of religion and cultures, but the biggest barrier to integration would be the different levels of development among the member countries. We have members still going through the development process and, while they may be achieving rapid growth, they still have quite a path ahead of them. Other members are further ahead in their development paths. Bridging that gap and managing the flows of economic migration are areas we have to look out for. Transnational crime, which sadly includes the trafficking of persons and narcotics, is an issue that the 10 governments must work closely together on.

Now designated an upper middle-income country, what steps are needed for Thailand’s further development?

Preparing the work force and educating the populace to equip themselves with the tools that they will need in today’s very competitive economy is the next step. Thailand has spent much of its resources on education, and it hasn’t necessarily worked out that well so far. We focus on a method of teaching that hasn’t been effective in improving our world ranking in standardized tests – we are still on the bottom among our peer groups. We’ve limited ourselves to academics, and not so much to the career training for specific careers that require technical skills. For Thailand to move forward, first we would have to educate our current and next generation, and also instill in them a respect for the rule of law. Once we have that mindset and the legal structure in place, then we can move forward, even faster than in the past.

Speaking of rule of law, what takeaways did you have as a Congressional Fellow on this process in the U.S.?

Working in a legislative office, I got to see how law-making is very tangible and relevant to every citizen in the U.S. But in Thailand, law-making or policy-making is something that the general population cannot grasp. When it’s so far away from you and from your everyday life, you start to lose touch with it and you don’t grasp the relevance of the law itself, and from that, you don’t respect the rule of law. So, getting to see how lawmakers listen to their constituents before passing the laws inspired me to let the population in Thailand know that this is something they should expect from their lawmakers. And when they do make demands from their lawmakers, they can actually gain something from the legislative process. If they see benefit from the law, they will start to respect the law. This is something I think Thais can learn from the Americans.

How does this fellowship help advance U.S.-Thai relations?

I think this fellowship is crucial for the relationship between our two nations. A lot of the fellows come from the Foreign Ministry and a lot of us have gone on to become ambassadors, and that helps tremendously to facilitate the relationship between the Thai diplomats in D.C. with the relationships they made on the Hill.  It also builds lasting friendship with future leaders of other countries. The American democratic process itself is transparent, and certainly a model that could be explored by other countries.

What drew you to the Fellowship and Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth in particular?

For my line of work in diplomacy, you have to come to Washington, D.C., somehow. It’s the center of politics and international relations.  It’s been wonderful working in Congresswoman Duckworth’s office. She spent her younger years in Thailand. Her mother is Thai and her father was a veteran working in Thailand during her earlier years. I had the good fortune to work with her during my training on the Hill, after I arrived as a Fellow during my intensive training with APSA preparing me for the placement. It was during one of these training sessions on a break where I happened to meet the Congresswoman at the gift shop on the Hill. I just went up to her and asked if I could work for her. After speaking more with her, she asked me to leave my contact details, and eventually, just weeks later, her staff reached out to me and I was working for the Congresswoman. It helped that she was a freshman, starting out her office and looking for trained staff. Even after my fellowship, she will visit Thailand on an official visit one week after I get back home.

What are Thailand’s most critical issues related to international relations in the coming years?

Thailand has a good relationship with all countries, but striking a balance between the more powerful allies – the U.S. and China – will be our task to navigate in the next few years. How these two super powers interact will without a doubt affect smaller countries like Thailand. And we sit right in the middle so we have to carefully manage our relationship vis-à-vis China and the United States.

Upon your return, you start at the North America desk at the Ministry. What will the top priorities be?

The first priority will be securing all the meetings for Congresswoman Duckworth, and arranging that delegation visit. This year marks the180th anniversary of the U.S.-Thailand relationship, the longest relationship between any country in Asia and the U.S. This celebration is something that I will be working hard on this year.

The Asia Foundation has had a long-standing relationship with the Congressional Fellowship Program, established in 1953 by the American Political Science Association (APSA). Read more.

2 comments on this post:

  1. Bulong Zai:

    I wish that the ASEAN could act as the EU, but it seems that it will take a long time before it realizes social and economic integration, since its member states have more signicant differences among them than among the EU states and there are also some disputes among them.
    Furthermore, external forces are competing in affecting the region. so the leaders of the ASEAN countries need tolarence, wisdom and courage to bridges the differences and settle the disputes. Finally, I believe that the ASEAN will have a brighter future.

  2. Mr. Suwantra is spot on in saying that we have to get our own political affairs in order if we are to play a prominent role in ASEAN. This will undoubtedly take time. The political events over the past 7 years has exposed layers upon layers of complexity that require open discussion and transparency for trust on all sides to be formed. Unfortunately, there are many social and legal structures in place that deter the kind of open and nuanced discussion needed.

    While standardized testing allows us to feel good about how we ‘rank’ compared to other countries, I hope that’s simply a by product of quality education – one that fosters questioning and engagement with an increasingly diverse ASEAN. If English is to be the language that unites us as a region, one should hope English language courses do more than prepare our people for taking tests.

    I’d love to read more about the specific technical skills training we need, but I can’t help but feel that technology will only take us so far unless the supporting social structures are in place. Silicon Valley and other technology hubs are beginning to question the innovation that comes out of their ecosystem. A million photo-sharing apps while the ‘big problems’ (e.g., education, inequality, heck, even traffic) remain. I hope Thailand’s ascension into the upper middle-income bracket allows us to tackle some bigger problems as well.

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