A Conversation with Thailand’s Ambassador to the U.S. Vijavat Isarabhakdi
March 26, 2014
The Asia Foundation’s director of Regional Cooperation Programs, John J. Brandon, speaks with Thailand’s Ambassador to the U.S. Vijavat Isarabhakdi, who served as a Congressional Fellow sponsored by The Asia Foundation.
As an accomplished diplomat for over two decades, looking back, what do you consider the highlight or most remarkable moment in your career in Thailand’s government?
The highlight of my diplomatic career so far must certainly be my appointment in 2013 as Ambassador of Thailand to the United States. This is one of the most important bilateral relationships for Thailand since relations between our two countries stretch back over 180 years and encompass virtually every area. There is therefore a great deal that we can achieve and cooperate on together. Personally, it is highly gratifying for me since much of my life has dealt with the United States, including studying in Boston on a Fulbright scholarship, being posted at the Royal Thai Embassy in the 1990s and serving as a Congressional Fellow on Capitol Hill.
In your view, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that the future holds for Thailand?
A major challenge for Thailand at present is for all sides in the political arena to rise above their differences and join together for the greater good of the country. There is a need to eradicate the mistrust and lack of confidence that seem to prevail at present. Another challenge will be to chart a path toward sustainable development for the Thai people, leading to a higher quality of life, while also along a route that is in harmony with the environment.
The opportunities for Thailand are tremendous since the country is blessed with a strategic geographical location, a diverse and dynamic economy, a hard-working and capable workforce, and strong economic fundamentals. It is up to the country to make full use of its potential. Another opportunity is for Thailand to play a proactive and constructive role in the region and the international community at large. This is the path that Thailand has been heading toward and aspires to.
Based on your leadership experience, what advice would you give to young leaders in Thailand today?
I would tell them that much about leadership involves leading by example. Young leaders cannot expect to command the support of their followers if they do not lead the way through actions. Dedication and sacrifice are essential elements. Also, they should try to look beyond national interests and focus on the greater good of the region and the international community at large.
As a Congressional Fellow sponsored by The Asia Foundation, what are your recollections about that experience and how did it help shape your diplomatic career?
I recall that it was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods in my life. We were very well taken care of by The Asia Foundation and the American Political Science Association. The Fellows were a great mix of Americans with diverse backgrounds plus a number of foreigners such as myself. The experience was greatly edifying and helped me to understand more, not only about Congress, but also the American political system as a whole.
I recall being worried at first about having to compete for a position in the offices of the U.S. congress members and senators with other very well qualified Americans who were also seeking the same position. However, in the end, everything turned out fine and I was able to get jobs with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Senator Hank Brown (R-Colorado). Both were very kind to me and taught me much about their work. I also had the pleasure of following Congressman Rohrabacher to his district and to see him in action with his constituents.
The experience played an important part in shaping my diplomatic career because I was subsequently posted to the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., as First Secretary in the 1990s. As a political officer there, I was able to put into practice the things that I learned as a Congressional Fellow. The combination of serving as a Congressional Fellow and my experience at the Embassy probably had a significant role leading to my appointment as ambassador in Washington almost 20 years later.
As The Asia Foundation marks its 60th anniversary, what do you regard as the Foundation’s main contribution toward improving lives and expanding opportunities in Thailand, and what role might the Foundation play to best support Thailand’s progress going forward?
Over the past 60 years, The Asia Foundation has played a very important and highly commendable role in improving lives and expanding opportunities, not only in Thailand but throughout the region. The Foundation has funded a large number of educational programs and international exchanges that have created greater career opportunities for many Thais. The Foundation’s women’s empowerment programs have helped create greater opportunities for women in Thailand, while its economic development programs have also empowered entrepreneurs and improved business environments.
The Asia Foundation can continue to support Thailand’s progress and advancement in these same areas as well as in finding new fields of cooperation for Thailand to meet the new challenges of the 21st century. These might include, for example, areas such as the environment, climate change, water resource management, and disaster preparedness.
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