Laetitia van den Assum
Dutch Ambassador to Thailand
I am going out on a limb here, but we are taking a stand. The Dutch Embassy is the nicest in Bangkok. There we've said it. Nestled in between the American embassy on one side and the American ambassador's residence on the other, the embassy is certainly not in any need of protection. The palatial grounds and the lush manicured lawns are littered with peacocks and waterfowl. It's easy to forget you are in Bangkok because it is the peaceful sound of birds chirping that you hear as you stroll across the verdant grounds, not the cacophony of the traffic on nearby Wireless Road.
The embassy, which the Dutch have occupied since 1890, used to be crown property but the Durch Governmant bought it back in 1947. The gracious Laetitia van den Assum who is the Dutch Ambassador to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar recently talked to our Managing Editor Scott Murray about her life, her thoughts on Thailand, Thai-Dutch relations, Thailand's economic problems and a number of other subjects. Following are excerpts from that interview.
Dutch Ambassador to Thailand, Laetitia van den Assum
Q: How did you get started in diplomatic life?
A: I've always been very interested in international relations. Very early on, I knew I wanted to do something that would expose me to the world, and in the last 60's, when I was seventeen, I had a chance to go to the US as an exchange student and that sparked my interest in looking beyond the Dutch borders. After taking my undergraduate degree in law at Amsterdam University, I went back to America and took a masters of law at Columbia University. While there, I spent a lot of time working for the United Nations, and on UN issues.
After that it seemed natural for me to go back to Holland and join the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1977. I've worked for the Ministry ever since, except for a four year break when I worked for UNICEF in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania between 1988 and 1992. I spent most of my time in the Foreign Ministry working in The Hague responsible for UN affairs. This is my first posting as ambassador, and I'm in my third year as head of the Dutch mission here in Thailand.
Q: Would you tell us a little about your day-to-day duties as ambassador?
A: I certainly live very well here. But a lot of people don't understand that what the outside world sees is only part of an ambassador's work; things like attending extravagant dinners, exhibitions, and ribbon cutting ceremonies. A lot of what I do involves day-to-day management issues, and running an embassy is very similar to running a business. I have to take care of problem solving issues, personnel management etc. The embassy must also act as a liaison with all the government agencies in the Netherlands that want us to do things for them in this area.
Q: Please tell us about the Dutch business presence here and how Dutch companies are responding to the economic crisis in Thailand?
A: Over 100 Dutch companies are operating here and there about 2,000 Dutch citizens living in Thailand (1,000 in Bangkok). In general, the Dutch business community is positive about the long tern prospects for Thailand. There isn't going to be a quick fix, however, it's going to take several years, but most of the Dutch companies operating here are here for the long haul.
Many Dutch companies have also announced major new investments. ABN-AMRO is now one of the largest foreign banks operating in Thailand and it recently announced it was taking over the Bank of Asia. Siam Makro has moved its regional headquarters here, and Tops is opening, or has opened supermarkets all across the country. Gammaster has also recently announced plans to start operating here.
Q: What type of things do you think the Thais have to do to get their economy back on track?
A: Well, I think the Bankruptcy Law was a good start although many of us think it didn't go far enough. The review of the Alien Business Law is another important step in opening up Thailand to more foreign investment.
It's very difficult now because of the credit squeeze. Production facilities must be upgraded as Thai products need more value added worth, but it's hard to find the money. Banks aren't lending, so many companies trying to take advantage of the push on exports can't finance their expansion plans.
There also has to be much more money allocated to education and training. Thailand needs to improve its skilled labor force, and more children need accessibility to secondary and vocational schools, as well as universities.
Q: Would you please describe Dutch-Thai trade relations and how they began?
A: Since we are such a small country we have always looked beyond our shores and since the sixteenth century the Netherlands has been a major seafaring nation. It was back then, in 1604, that The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) first arrived here, and trade between the two countries has flourished ever since. At present, Thailand exports twice as much as it imports to the Netherlands. The main export products are machinery, transport equipment, agriculture based goods, and raw materials. While Thailand imports from us mainly machinery, transport equipment, and chemical and agriculture based products.
Q: Please tell us about some interesting Dutch people living and working in Thailand?
Mrs Lea Dingjan - Laarakker the traditional silk weaver (featured in Siam Trade, Vol. 60) is certainly interesting as she has set-up and helped preserve traditional weaving techniques in a village in Surin province called Bang Reng Khai. She has such enthusiasm and vigor and puts so much of herself into her work.
Jan Boeles is a Dutchman who is over eighty now, but has been here for more than sixty years. He knows a lot about the history of Dutch-Thai trade relations, and he has done a lot of work in the cultural field. He is an honorary member of the Siam Society, and recently he has donated many of his books and historical documents to that Society.
There is also a Dutch nun, who is well into her eighties, named Sister Jeanne van der Alst who set up several homes for the elderly and poor in Klong Toey. She is really a remarkable woman as she still goes to work and administers to the poor every day.
And a Danish priest named Adri Schama, who is not here anymore, set up an orphanage called Baan Adri. It is a home for poor or troubled Thai youth and it is run by the Dutch community here in Thailand.
I must also point out that the Dutch business community across the board has done a tremendous job of contributing to charitable works here in Thailand.
Q: You are one of the few female ambassadors in Thailand, do you think that soon there will be more of a even balance between male and female diplomats?
A: Well, there are four of us here: the Swedish Ambassador Inga Fogh Eriksson, the Belgian ambassador Cristina Funes-Noppen, and the Sri Lankan ambassador Sarala Fernando, and that is about the same percentage you will find in any big city in the world.
To be an ambassador you have to start out at the junior level of civil service and the whole process can take up to twenty to thirty years. And a couple decades ago many more men applied for the civil service than women did. But that's changing now, as more women are currently entering the civil service, so yes I think you will see the imbalance being addressed soon.
Q: Since Indonesia was a former Dutch colony your government must be watching events unfolding there with a keen interest. How do you see the situation in Jakarta so far?
My government was shocked and devastated by the killing, looting and violence that took place just before Sohaerto stepped down, but I think we are all encouraged by recent events. Of course it's too early to tell, but it seems that reforms are being implemented and that there is hope for the future in Indonesia. It is really a question of time though because you cannot change a society overnight.
Q: You recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, can you tell us your thoughts on that country?
A: Well, the country is just exhausted from civil war, strife and violence. The Cambodian people want peace but not peace at any price. The upcoming elections will not be a panacea for all of Cambodia's problems, but credible, free and fair elections are the first step towards establishing a democratic and free society.
There has also been progress made because both Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh are back campaigning and that was thought to be impossible just nine months ago.
Q: You are also the Dutch ambassador to Myanmar, can you tell us a little about that country?
A: It's a beautiful country, I like it very much, and I have a great respect for the people. But there are certain impediments to strengthening Dutch relations with Myanmar as the political situation is very dificult. I hope that the people will have more participation in their political life in the future. Their economy is not doing well, and the country is the poorest in the region, so we have a very small business presence there, and there are only about ten to fifteen Dutch people living n Myanmar.
Q: What about your individual thoughts on Thailand?
A: I've been here for two-and-a-half years now and yet everyday this country holds a new fascination for me. This country really sparks my curiosity, and it can be very difficult to understand because there is always this component of mystery to Thailand.
* Why does the Netherlands place so much emphasis on foreign investment and trade?
"We don't invest all our resources in our own country because we are small and much of our potential has already been realized. So we are like Singapore in this region in that we tend to go outside with whatever funds are available.
"If you look at Germany, for example, which was re-united a few years ago, you'll notice that a lot of German investment goes into building up what was former East Germany, that's where they are spending their money. But we are a more settled country and although we are constantly improving on our performance as an agriculture based and service economy, we cannot expand geographically and therefore funds are available to be invested elsewhere.
"Its very different from the US and Germany where they have huge territories and can still explore further domestic investment. Remember, many Dutch companies are already established in Europe and for a long time the Netherlands was the number one investor in the US, so we are well established throughout the world.
"It is ironic really because everyone thinks that because we are a small country (we rank 134th in terms of land mass) that we are not important economically but we rank sixth in terms of global investment and eighth in terms of trade flows."
* Please tell us about the Dutch presence in Thailand?
"Last year, we were the fifth largest investor in Thailand (after Japan, South Korea, the US and Hong Kong) and the largest of the fifteen member EU countries.
"And there are 120 Dutch companies established in Thailand and with one or two exceptions all of the major Dutch firms are operating here. Companies such as Philips, the electronics giant, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell (which is 60% Dutch and 40% English), Makro Siam and Ahold (Tops Supermarket) and ABN AMRO to name a few.
"And how do these companies affect people in their everyday life? Well, people eat Wall's ice cream, Foremost milk, Yomost yogurt, and they shop at Tops and Makro, they put Shell in their cars, they use Philips electronics, they bank at ABN AMRO and the Bank of Asia, they use Omo washing powder, Lux soap, and many other products of Dutch origin, you can really just go on and on. Unilever is a good example as it is now seen as being a 100% Thai company but it has Dutch roots. With the upswing of the Thai economy, we think that its now time for us to focus on the potential for Dutch SMEs to set up shop here and venture into partnerships with their Thai counterparts.
"In May, we had a trade delegation travel here and it was led by our Minister of Foreign Trade, Mr Gerrit Ybema. He was accompanied by a group of Dutch companies, but especially a large number of SMEs, even some very small ones, who are now trying to venture outside of the Netherlands and who are especially interested in striking up partnerships with small Thai companies who would for example help them export Thai food and popularize it in the Netherlands. We think there is enormous potential in this and other areas.
"We took this trade mission to meet various government officials and businesspeople in Bangkok and then we took them to the Chiang Mai area where there are a number of SMEs in the agriculture and food processing industries which the Dutch have a lot of expertise in. We arranged meetings for them with the Chamber of Commerce in Chiang Mai, established contacts with various Thai companies as well as some Dutch companies that are already operating in the region, so they could get a better feel of what its like to do business here. Then afterwards, if they want more information, we can help them learn more about Thai legislation, rules and procedures."
* How have Dutch companies reacted to the economic crisis?
"Even though Thailand and the other countries in this region have suffered a great shock due to the economic crisis, we cannot ignore the future potential of this region. With 400 million people, South-East Asia is such a big market. That is why I was not surprised that just after the crisis more Dutch investment actually came in and Dutch investors (like Tops and Makro) which had plans to initiate new investment didn't back down but continued on with their projects. They have thirty to forty year prospectives and they look at the long term trends in the region, and although the crisis was serious, it was seen as a temporary disruption. So if the tough conditions of financial reform continue to be met, there is tremendous potential for co-operation between Thailand and the Netherlands."
* Tell us about the Dutch community in Thailand?
"We have about 4,000 people living in Thailand which is quite sizable and again an indication that the Netherlands is a small country, and a lot of people leave because they find it too crowded. But it's also an indicator that we have strong economic ties with Thailand, because many of our nationals in Thailand work for Dutch companies. And we also have many people working with UN agencies: whether it's with UNICEF, ESCAP or FAO.
"Basically we have a geographical concentration in Bangkok; then the Rayong-Pattaya area where the Shell refineries are located; then Chiang Mai and the north where there are an increasing number of agri-businesses; and the fourth concentration is in Phuket, but that's more retirement and leisure oriented.
* How can the Dutch help the Thais in the area of agri-business?
"What Thailand and the Netherlands have in common is that agriculture is the backbone for both our economies. We are, despite our small size, a huge exporter of agricultural produce, and not just cheese and milk powder, but many horticultural products (flowers, tulip bulbs) as well.
"We are very happy to see the government and the Thai people are starting to realize that perhaps in the euphoria of the first boom agriculture was overlooked. Basically Thailand is still a very rural based society, that's where the bulk of the people live and make their living, so it's very important to try and modernize agriculture methods and to try and build up agri-based industries so there is more added value, and that's something that we in the Netherlands have a lot of expertise in.
"Its not only how you produce your rice, potatoes and tomatoes. It's how you market them and bring them to the consumers and how you can add value by processing them. When you look at Thailand, that whole area of how you get from the small producer to the small consumer is not very developed yet.
"I know one potato chip manufacturer who has to deal with 10,000 different farmers in the north who all grow potatoes in different ways yet he has to make sure that the potato chip found on the supermarket shelf is consistent in quality, appearance and taste. That's extremely difficult. It's very important that these farmers co-operate and work together.
"The government must also make sure that there are sufficient access roads, and that there are transport systems so that the produce can get to market on-time. You have a good international airport here in Bangkok and plans for another, but if you are in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and you have to truck down your wares to Bangkok, twenty to thirty percent will be wasted before you even get here. And when you add up all those individual pick-ups, that's a huge amount of wasted produce.
"Our Ministry of Agriculture is working with the Thai Ministry of Agriculture to see how this whole chain from the small producer to the consumer can be made to be more efficient, so that ultimately what you can have higher incomes in rural areas."
* What about the embassy complex itself?
"Foreigners aren't allowed to buy land in Thailand but embassies can. So we bought this in 1946 and it was crown property back then. The first tenant was the personal physician of King Rama V, Dr Alphonse Poix, and he moved out in 1917. Then Prince Bovoradej lived here, but he had to flee to Cambodia because of the political events of 1932. After that it was leased and it belonged to the British Club and when we bought it (we were on Suriwong Rd. before) we took it over from the Salesian Fathers."
* Any Prominent Dutch people living in Thailand you would like to mention?
"Sister Jeanne who is 90 and lives in the Mater Dei complex.
She's the oldest person in the Dutch community, and she's been here since 1938. She has done a lot of great work with slum communities and the hospitals for the mentally retarded.
"Also, the artist Jan Montyn (profiled in Siam Trade, Vol.8 #87). He is not only an artist but he also visits secondary schools throughout the Netherlands to talk about his experiences in WWII and the Korean War and he discusses the dangers of fascism and totalitarian regimes and the importance of democratization. He lives here for about nine months of the year. He's quite well-known and his work sells well here, in the Netherlands, in France and in Japan."
* You have extended your appointment for a year, is that correct?
"Yes, a normal tour of duty is four years, but I asked to stay for one more year. I came in late '95, so I was here for the good times, now I have gone through the crisis, and it will be good to experience some of the upswing as well. I continue to learn everyday and my curiosity is not yet satiated."
* Thoughts on Thailand?
"It stimulates your curiosity and constantly triggers your senses. As you walk around and see people mingling about, you ask what are they talking about, what are they doing, what are they cooking? It's never boring, there are so many things happening, it's a very dynamic society."
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