The unique story of a Thai female diplomat that wants to grow ties with Latin America
Thailand and Latin America: Not Close, Yet Not So Far?
Thailand and Latin America are forging closer ties than ever before, be it diplomatically, politically, economically or through people-to-people exchanges. If you asked a few decades ago how many Thais have set foot in Latin America, or Latin Americans in Thailand, the numbers would’ve been modest. However, nowadays the numbers have increased. Thais are deepening diplomatic relations, increasing bilateral trade to a surge in popularity of watching South American football teams, taking salsa dance classes, tasting wines from the region and having vacations in Machu Picchu. Thais are increasingly becoming more acquainted with a region that once seemed far away. Latin Americans are traveling to Thailand in droves, attracted to its rich culture, beaches and using Thailand as a hub to travel to other Southeast Asian countries, as well as developing a taste for Thai cuisine.
As a Thai female diplomat, I’ve made fostering ties between Thailand and Latin America one of my career goals. I asked fellow female diplomats, as well as a student, civil society and a travel blogger, to weigh in on how Thailand - Latin American relations could be fostered in a myriad of sectors, as well as share their experiences in Latin America as Thai women, including the parallels, peculiarities and paradoxes they have observed.
Where did this passion stem from? Back in 2007, I left for Chile from Thailand with rudimentary Spanish skills and a head filled with Isabel Allende quotes. Little did I know that would be the start of a lifelong passion for Latin America that would carry on to my career as a Thai diplomat.
A few weeks before I left, I was perusing through a list of prospective countries to spend my AFS high school exchange year. Scanning through the choices, there were the usual suspects: USA, Great Britain, Scandinavian countries … but for me, only one choice stood out where I would expand my horizons the most. In my high school English class, we happened to be analyzing the renowned novel “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende, one of Chile’s most famous cultural exports. For some of my classmates, my decision to leave school mid-year to learn Spanish in a faraway country was seemingly the result of a sudden burning passion to discover the land of swashbuckling gauchos and romantic trysts on haciendas after reading the novel. Although my decision to leave was not influenced by Allende, I have to admit there was a certain element of intrigue that the book induced about the country, and I couldn’t wait to embark on the adventure!
My study abroad year in Chile was a whirlwind of experiences. If at first I was puzzled that I was referred to as “La China” or “La Filipina” by classmates, I soon came to understand that these were terms of endearment for people of Asian descent and not a comment about any country in particular. I was for certain not a ‘gringa’ (white Westerner). I attended a local public high school, joining a boisterous class where the male students outnumbered the female by a ratio of 3:1; eventually learning to pick up Chilean Spanish and all its swallowed consonants, among the hardest to understand in the Spanish-speaking world. I picked up academic Spanish at school and street slang at parties; I peppered my “Si” and “No” with plenty of “pos”, a derivative of “pues” (well), asked the question “Cachai?” (Do you get it?) frequently; threw in the occasional “Cachai, po?” I cooked Thai food for my wonderful host family; they held an ‘asado’ family-style barbeque three times a week, washed down by some pisco or red wine. I did not gain weight eating all that steak at all that year, because Chilean meat is high grade, lean, the purest protein I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. I traveled far and wide, or in Chile’s case as the skinniest country on earth, up and down; stargazed in the Atacama Desert, wandered through vineyards, marveled at snow-capped volcanos at Pucon, among other adventures. A year later, I became proficient in fluent Chilean Spanish, made friends from across Chile and returned to Thailand with a newfound appreciation for Chile’s stable politics, forward-looking economic policies and rich cultural scene.
Fast forward 8 years later, I am now a diplomat representing Thailand with a passion to foster Thailand’s relations with not just Chile, but the whole of Latin America. Because of their geographical locations on opposite sides of the world, the level of relations between Thailand and Latin America is still moderate and has plenty more potential for growth. With a market of more than 300 million people, Latin America cannot be overlooked by Thailand. Yet Thai policymakers, businessmen and globetrotters are still reluctant to engage more deeply with Latin America because of the vast geographical distance separating the two regions and their unfamiliarity with Latin America’s politics and economy, as well as the Spanish and Portuguese languages and culture. Above all, there is a psychological distance that separates Thailand from Latin America that needs to be overcome.
Women: Vanguard of Closer Thailand-Latin America Ties
Both Thailand and Latin America have made many meaningful strides in addressing women’s rights and boosting women’s empowerment - Thailand, Argentina, Chile and Brazil have all had female leaders. Nevertheless, while Thai and Latin American women do not suffer formal restrictions to mobility, education, and labor force participation, there are many informal barriers stemming from cultural values and patriarchal attitudes towards women that are obstacles for them to fulfill their potential. Latin America is infamous for its ‘machismo’ culture. In Thailand, cultural perceptions of women as being inferior to men impede women’s development as well. An old Thai saying exemplifies this: "A man is the foreleg of the elephant and the woman the hind leg.”
Both Thailand and Latin America can certainly learn from each other’s experiences on fighting for gender equality. “Many countries in Latin America have established mechanisms such as institutions, campaigns, and education programs that address to these gender inequality issues. For Thailand, there have been many efforts to grant rights and empower women in many aspects such as reproductive health, education and sexual violence. I believe that Thailand and Latin America can learn from as well as complement each other at the governmental and civil-society level,” remarks Anusara (Sara) Tanpitak, an alumni of the UN-mandated University of Peace in Costa Rica, currently working at GIZ Thailand.
Growing Diplomatic Ties
Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand has a relatively wide-ranging presence in Latin America. It has established diplomatic relations with 32 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its relations with many countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala and Cuba. Thailand has five embassies in Latin America: Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Mexico City, Santiago de Chile and Lima. Meanwhile, seven Latin American countries have embassies in Thailand: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Cuba, Peru and Chile.
Thai female diplomats have been an important force in fostering increased ties. One way to effectively interact with locals to create a convivial atmosphere, ensure the smooth running of high-level official visits and effective exchange of information is the knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese languages. “As diplomats, one of the most indispensable skills to have when on an overseas posting is the knowledge of local languages. Without it, we would never be able to effectively communicate with our Latin American colleagues on important issues as well as gaining their confidence. I think female diplomats make more effort to speak Spanish or Portuguese than male diplomats. As a result, not only do our colleagues feel more comfortable and open up to us more, we become friends with locals in our communities much more quickly,” said one diplomat in the Latin America division.
To win the hearts and minds of Latin Americans, Thai female diplomats employ the ‘soft power’ of Thai culture to full effect in their postings. “Thai female diplomats are multi-talented. Not only are we effective diplomats, we also engage our communities in non-political endeavors such as cooking, arts, tourism, sports, dance and music. In this way, we promote Thailand’s vibrant culture in different arenas while building friendships with locals,” revealed one diplomat in the Department of American and South Pacific Affairs.
Thai foreign policy is as multi-pronged as its diplomats: food diplomacy via “Thailand’s Kitchen to the World” program has been a hallmark of Thailand’s image, with Thai restaurants often considered as the best ambassadors of Thailand. Many have remarked on the similarity of Thai cuisine with some Latin American cuisines, such as Peruvian and Mexican, with their emphasis on a mixture of flavors and fresh ingredients. Peru, named as the World’s Leading Culinary Destination in 2016, has several creative initiatives such as advocating for the establishment of a World “Sustainable Gastronomy Day” to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns. Itself a world leading culinary destination, Thailand should view these initiatives as platforms for further cooperation and exchange of ideas with Latin America. Interest in cuisine naturally extends to the beverage industry, with many areas of potential cooperation in coffee and wine production. Thais increasingly turn to Latin American wines for their excellent quality and value. Indeed, pairing Thai food with the right Latin American wine could be the start of new realms of possibilities in the world of fusion food.
In multilateral fora, Thailand and Latin America find much common ground on a range of issues such as the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, boosting the role of women and promoting multicultural societies. They are both part of various groups with similar leanings, such as the Non-Aligned Movement. Colombia has expressed interest in learning from Thailand’s experiences with eradicating drug trafficking, which along with Peru’s, were considerably featured in the UN Guiding Principles on Alternative Development. In these fora, female diplomats from both Thailand and Latin American countries occupy high-level positions with considerable decision-making powers. Notably, many Latin American Permanent Representatives to the United Nations are currently female, which boosts visibility and legitimacy in the promotion of women’s rights. The UN is an ideal platform for Thailand and Latin America to exchange best practices in conflict prevention and conflict resolution with each other, as well as with other member states. “As many countries in Latin America have suffered from internal conflict and violence, and have eventually rebounded from the turmoil, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Thailand can learn a lot about conflict resolution from Latin America. Best practices in institutional and legal reform, addressing indigenous rights and environmental preservation. For example, Thailand could learn from the experiences of the Colombian peace referendum in late 2016 as an example of national reconciliation. I believe this kind of knowledge exchange and collaboration will foster a stronger relationship between Thailand and Latin America,” suggests Anusara Tanpitak of GIZ Thailand.
With a multilayered approach to conducting diplomacy, Thai female diplomats are leading the way in fostering dynamic diplomatic relations between Thailand and Latin America. Both sides have found common ground on a whole range of issues that will surely narrow the psychological gap between them even further in the near future.
(To be continued)
Manassinee Moottatarn is a Thai diplomat, currently with the Department of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand. She holds a BA in International Relations from Claremont McKenna College, California and a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, Washington DC. She is interested in the developments of regional integration across the world. Views are her own.