Thai Congressional Fellow on the Hill
October 9, 2019
This year, Thai diplomat Surat Suwannikkha joined the Washington, D.C., staff of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). Mr. Suwannikkha, who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, is a mid-career diplomat on leave from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he most recently served as first secretary in the Strategic Projects Unit of the Department of American and South Pacific Affairs. He sat down not long ago with Global Communications Director Eelynn Sim at our San Francisco headquarters to reflect on his time in Washington, his insights into U.S.-Thai relations, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Why did you decide to interrupt your diplomatic career to come to the U.S. and work on Capitol Hill?
When I have conversations with colleagues, we often talk about U.S. foreign policy or other policies, and more often than not, people focus almost exclusively on the administration and not that much on the legislative branch. So, for me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get firsthand experience with Congress.
Congressman Fortenberry gave you some advice about “digging deeper.” Share a bit about the substance of your experiences in the last year.
Well, I worked with my colleagues on a House resolution on security conditions for religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq—predominantly those who got displaced by ISIS—to allow them to return home. It was a good learning experience of how legislation in the American system works. You do everything from drafting the resolution, to finding cosponsors, to how to get this thing to pass in committee and on the House floor. And one piece of advice that I remember very well from Congressman Fortenberry is always to dig deeper: What is the purpose of doing this? What is the next step? What is the endgame? What do you want to get out of this?
How will your congressional experience influence your engagement with other diplomats in your future postings?
Even in diplomatic circles, this is a very hard-to-come-by experience. In fact, I was the only diplomat in my fellowship cohort. So, I cherish this opportunity to have firsthand knowledge of the U.S. legislative process. You get a complete picture of the U.S. political system. The checks and balances, for example: to pass a bill, you have to pass both the House side and the Senate side. How do you reconcile differences? It’s about give and take. It’s about communication, and about building your networks to get things done.
What surprised you in this experience of the American system?
How hardworking U.S. congressmen and congresswomen are.
Do you see any similarities, politically or culturally, between Thailand and the United States?
We had this very interesting conversation, the congressman and I. We in Thailand are very proud to be America’s first friendly nation—since 1833, that’s when we formally established diplomatic relations. Our relationship has experienced ups and downs, but, going back to Congressman Fortenberry’s point about digging deeper, what is it that allows this relationship to stand the test of time? And I told him, very simply, it’s our shared values. It boils down to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have also spent significant time in China. What was that experience like?
I was there from 2013 to 2017, and I was in Beijing before that, around 2007–8, when I was doing my studies. My first year in Beijing was also the first year of President Xi Jinping, and I was there when the One Belt One Road initiative was announced, so for me, as a political officer, it has been a very, very exciting time.
Because Thailand is also a developing country, we have a lot of things in common. As people’s income increases, how do we help those who can’t keep up? How do we address poverty, migration? What about your duty to your family: we always say family is most important, but if both parents have to work, how do they balance economic development and social development? So, I really enjoyed being in China at that time to see how another country addresses issues that Thailand also faces.
Do you have any interesting personal stories from your nine months here?
Every Wednesday, members of the Nebraska delegation, from both the Senate and the House, host a breakfast to meet with people from Nebraska, and at the last Nebraska breakfast before recess, Congressman Fortenberry asked me to say something about myself. So, I said, first, we in Thailand are very proud to be your first friend in Asia. Our servicemen have fought shoulder to shoulder. Our late King is, to this day, the only foreign monarch born on American soil.
But second, I said, I want to share with you a story. Last week I went to North Carolina. I consider myself an adopted Nebraskan, working for the Nebraska delegation, so I took with me a Nebraska Cornhuskers hat, and there I was introduced to a famous American actress, who saw my hat and asked, “Is that a Nebraska hat?” I said yes. And I was thinking, as much as I like to claim that I’m a distant relative of Nebraska, genetically it’s not possible. So, I looked into her eyes, and I said, “Go Big Red.” You know, it’s the saying of Nebraska’s teams, and I just laughed.
I have had such a great time, you know, coming across different groups of people, seeing different things. I took the opportunity to travel around the U.S. I went to the Northeast, then down to Dallas, Texas. I went to Nebraska for a week. That was my first July 4th in the U.S. I went to NASCAR racing in Richmond, Virginia, and I enjoyed the Met in New York, seeing some of the top-notch exhibits there.
And now, here you are!
I am in San Francisco for the first time!
I just want to say that this experience wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation between our ministry and The Asia Foundation. I think, in the end, it boils down to empathy. I describe it as putting yourself into somebody else’s shoes. When people understand one another, they can start to find common solutions. I always say to my counterparts, yes, we are friends. Friends do not always have to think alike, but the most important thing is the ability to understand where your friends are coming from and to try to find common ground. It’s the ability to understand other people that’s the foundation of any healthy relationship.
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