THAILAND: 'To be 'Thai' means to be 'free"
Karin Palmquist

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt

If all goes as planned, the United States and Thailand will sign a free trade agreement by the end of next year. The two countries finished the first round of negotiations in Honolulu last year and the second week of October they meet again in Hawaii for a second round. A third round, also in Honolulu, will be completed before year's end and a fourth round is scheduled in Bangkok for early next year. All in all, twelve rounds will be needed to close the 24 chapters of the agreement. sat down with Thailand's ambassador to Washington, Kasit Piromya, to ask him about the free trade agreement, Thailand's booming tourism sector, and the threat of terrorism and the bird flu virus.

Asked about the time frame for the free trade negotiations and what he anticipates will be the sticking points, the ambassador said:

"We estimate it will take 12-16 months, and conclude late next year. Among the agenda items are trade in goods and services, intellectual property, government procurement, and science and technology cooperation. We're putting extra emphasis on the cooperation of SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises). The items that will take the longest to negotiate are financial matters and the mobility of people. Free trade includes people."

Thailand already has free trade agreements with Bahrain, China and Australia, and recently signed a free trade agreement with India. Asked what sectors of the Thai economy he thinks will benefit from the agreement between Thailand and the United States, the ambassador mentioned food products, including fresh and frozen fish, seafood, fruits, rice, fashion, jewelry, handicrafts, textiles, household items and sugar.

"With the WTO ruling [eliminating government textile subsidies and import taxes worldwide], we must be more competitive," the ambassador said. "The key is to find the niche markets where we can compete. For example Thai silk, there we are competitive. We can compete in specialized garments with for example embroidery or some other human touch. Last year, our government declared Bangkok a city of fashion and we've had several exhibitions in Milan. We have long been contractors of multinationals. Now it's time to push our own brands. Jim Thompson is a good example."

Finding its niche markets is key, but so is being innovative. 

"We have been a net-exporter of rice for 150 years. But it's not enough to just export rice," the ambassador said. "We have to put more in to research and development to, for example, turn the rice husks into glucose for the pharmaceutical industry. We export semi-processed fruits and raw materials for Thai food, but more importantly we're pushing Thai food as a commodity. And with the Thai food comes interior decoration for Thai restaurants, utensils, chopsticks and what have you, Thai music and entertainment."

A free trade agreement will encourage investments in the country. Thailand has long been a recipient of investments from the leading Asian economy, Japan.

Asked if he worried that Thailand would receive less in the way of investments from Japan, with China's economy coming on strongly, the ambassador said: "I think Japan has realized it can't put all fruits in one basket. Japan will invest in China for the Chinese domestic market, and the rest of the investments will go to other Asian countries. For Thailand it means investments in the auto industry. General Motors uses Thailand not just for assembly, but also as a production base, and for Toyota Thailand is a design center for parts. Thailand is number two after the United States when it comes to production of small trucks."

While encouraging investments into the country, Thailand is also looking to invest in the region, together with international donor organizations.

"We want to push the concept of partnership [with international organizations]. We export telecom service to Laos and Myanmar and we want to co-finance new ventures in Cambodia and Vietnam together with the World Bank. We don't want the world to think in terms of donor and recipient. We've repaid everything we borrowed from the IMF; now let's work together. We'd like to partner in development projects in less developed Asian countries. We want the world to look at us from a different angle and we'd like to continue to work for economic development, peace and security in the Asian region."

One of the most important sectors of the Thai economy is tourism. Thailand receives 10 million visitors a year, and the Thai government recently announced a visitor arrivals target of 20 million by 2008. What will bring visitors to Thailand and what are the government's development plans for the tourism sector?

"What is the attractiveness of Thailand?" the ambassador asks. "There is the history, the temples and the natural beauty, the food and 'the smiling Thailand.' And last but not least the geographical location. One hundred airlines fly to Thailand and there are good regional connections. We have an open skies agreement for Thailand, which benefits not only tourism but also cargo transport. We are not protecting Thai Airways as the national airline. We're open to thrift airlines. The road connections, the so-called Asian Highway, are good as well, and we are cooperating with our neighbors to improve the road network. Thai Airways plans to offer nonstop flights between Bangkok and the American east coast, either New York, Chicago or Washington, by 2005. We hope that will bring more visitors from North America. Only half a million Americans visit Thailand every year. We're also working on improving the linkage to the Middle East. China is another big market. On our side, we can improve as a destination though renovation and beautification."

Americans traveling to Thailand often wish to see more of the region than one country and Thailand cooperates regionally with Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia for package deals. But not all tourists come for the sights. Thailand has found a booming business in spa and health services.

"The hotels in Asia are second to none. And our spas and hospitals are excellent," the ambassador said. "Half a million people every year come to Thailand for medical treatment. We have interpreters not only that speak English, but also Arabic, Japanese and so on. They come for surgery, often cosmetic procedures."

Singapore has long been the region's favorite convention site, but Bangkok is gaining ground as a convention destination. The city attracted a huge AIDS conference in July and Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau hopes to put Bangkok on a par with Singapore within a few years. What does the ambassador think of Bangkok's chances to develop into a convention location?

"The establishment of Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau shows the seriousness of the government to promote incentive travel," the ambassador said. "We're competing with Singapore and Hong Kong, both city states. Thailand can offer so much more than those destinations in terms of culture and sightseeing. We offer history and wonderful food, and on price we're very competitive. We need to target different associations to host their annual meetings and work closely with airlines."

What could put a damper on Thailand's plans to encourage more tourists and conventions is the recent outbreak of violence in the country's southern part. There are six to eight million Muslims in Thailand, concentrated in the south, in and around Bangkok and in the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, in the north. Since January, a Muslim separatist insurgency in the Yala province in the south of the country has claimed at least 280 lives. Even Buddhist monks have been attacked by Muslim insurgents, sparking fears the conflict could broaden into major strife between Muslims in the south and Thailand's predominantly Buddhist population. What is the government doing to curb violence and bring stability to the region?

"Thailand is an open democracy. In fact the word 'Thai' means 'free,' so to be 'Thai' is to be 'free.' Since the 1990s we have been a full-fledged democracy. Any belief system that denies the freedom of women and so on goes against Thai beliefs," the ambassador said.

"We are against terrorism. We were present in Afghanistan. Until September 20 we had 400 medical and construction staff in Iraq and we are negotiating with the Iraqi government the terms for a second phase of a Thai presence in Iraq. Our international cooperation includes information exchange and monitoring the movement of suspected terrorists. Our container ships are tracked by satellite to prevent hijacking at sea. We are actively cooperating bilaterally, regionally and internationally.

"The Muslims are part of Thai society. Our deputy prime minister and our former foreign minister are Muslim, and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, around 10 percent are Muslim. Traditionally, Thai Muslims furthered their studies in Cairo. But for the last ten years they have been going to Sudan or Afghanistan instead and this is part of the problem. They have been indoctrinated with hatred and convinced to die for the cause. Extremists have infiltrated traditional Muslim schools and they use the schools to recruit.

"The third cause is we did not send good administrative officials to the south. We sent officials that were corrupt and thought they were above the law. They made false arrests, false accusations. The fourth reason is the local mafia, both Muslim and Buddhist. They run the brothels, they make a lot of money from smuggling. Because of the upcoming elections, local politicians are using dirty means to discredit the government.

"There is a lack of coordination, a lack of an intelligence network. The military, the police and civilians all collect intelligence but it is not coordinated. We need to isolate the few hundred [extremists]. We need to reach out to village heads, and improve the development of the south by improving the infrastructure, by building roads and bridges. We need to provide activities. We're working on the model one village, one product. We need to accelerate the socio-economic development of the south. So far this situation is contained in the south. We must end it quickly."

Containing the violence will not be an easy task, but in the end it might turn out to be easier than containing another threat to Thailand and its visitors: the persistent and deadly avian flu virus. The virus, often referred to as the bird flu, hit Thailand hard last year and this year's outbreak claimed its eleventh victim the first week of October. In neighboring Vietnam, the death toll has risen to 20. What can Thailand do to prevent these outbreaks?

"You know, birds fly," the ambassador sighs. "Thailand is a destination for many migratory birds. We're now past summer and in the monsoon season [the season of outbreaks]. Traditional Thai houses are built on stilts and chickens are kept underneath the house. We are trying to teach people to keep the chicken reined in, using mosquito nets. We're working to make chicken farming more industrialized. We're conducting more inspections. We've had an inspection team from Japan and ten to fourteen facilities have been approved. We can't export fresh and frozen chickens to the EU and Japan, but processed products are ok."

"Then there is the cock fighting," the ambassador continued. "This is a social problem. These cocks are loved like children. People don't want to kill their children. And in every home there are zebra doves. People hold singing competitions between zebra doves. These birds are loved and prized."

"We need advice and we need foreign expertise, especially if this will be a recurring problem every monsoon season. We're working closely with the WTO, but it must be a regional effort," the ambassador said. 

Curriculum Vitae of Kasit Piromya
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Thailand to the United States of America
December 15, 1944, Thonburi, Bangkok
Married, Mrs. Chintana (Wajanabukka) Piromya
- Mr. Om Piromya (deceased 1974-1994)
- Miss Prae Piromya (ne'1981)
Attended Bangkok Christian College; St.Joseph's College, Darjeeling, India; Faculty of Political Science (Legal Section), Chulalongkorn University
B.Sc.(International Affairs), School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University (Class of '68)
Diploma in International Relations and M.Sc. (Social Science), Instute of Social Studies, the Hague, the Netherlands, 1971
The National Defense College of Thailand, 1990
Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Third Secretary, Department of International Organizations
Third Secretary, News Analysis Division, Department of Information
Third Secretary, SEATO Division, Department of International Organizations
Third Secretary and Second Secretary, Royal Thai Embassy, Brussels and Thai Mission to the European Community (European Union)
Second Secretary, International Economic Affairs Division Department of Economic Affairs
First Secretary, Office of the Director-General, Department of Economic Affairs
Director, Commerce and Industry Division, ASEAN Department
Director, Economic Information Division, Department of Economic Affairs
Director, Policy and Planning Division, Office of the Permanent Secretary
Deputy Director-General, Department of Economic Affairs
Ambassador Attached to the Ministry, Office of the Permanent Secretary (responsible for European Affairs)

Director-General, Department of International Organizations
Ambassador extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Thailand to the Soviet Union and concurrently to the People's Republic of the Mongolia(1991); to the Russian Federation and concurrently to the newly indepent states (except the Baltic countries) and to the People's Republic of Mongolia (1992-1993)
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Thailand to the Replublic of Indonesia and concurrently to the Republic of Papua New Guinea
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Thailand to the Federation Republic of Germany
Ambassador Attached to the Ministry, Office of the Permanent Secretary, and seconded to the Secretariat Office of the Prime Minister, Government House.
(N.B. 1980-1982 concurrently seconded respectively to the Secretariat Office of the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives)
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Thailand to Japan
2004 - Present
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Thailand to the United States of America
The Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun of Japan
The Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Das Grosse Verdienstkreuz mit Stem und Shulterbond)
Knight Grand Cordon (Special Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant
Knight Grand Cordon (Special Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand
The Chakrabarti Mala Medal
Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant
Knight Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand
Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant
Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand
Commander (Third Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand
Commander (Fourth Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant