Growing Thailand-Latin American Relations: Women’s Perspectives (Part 2)
To read the first part of this article, click here.
Beyond diplomatic and political circles, there is still plenty of potential for Thailand and Latin America to foster closer economic ties, with the role of women featuring from both places featuring prominently. Coming from rich cultural backgrounds, women from both Thailand and Latin America are already serving as cultural ambassadors in their own right.
Growing Economic Ties
The economies of Thailand and Latin America are both based on the export of primary and manufactured goods, as well as growing services market. Both are looking to diversify their economies as well as their export markets. After suffering from several economic and financial crises in recent decades, such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand discovered that it cannot rely on traditional markets such as the US or Europe. Thus, Thailand cannot be a mere bystander while other countries are making deals to tap into Latin America’s vast middle class and their increasing purchasing power. Nor can Latin America overlook Thailand, part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional grouping with 9 countries, collectively considered the second - fastest growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region after China. Founded in 1967, ASEAN today encompasses Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam - several of which are major global hubs of manufacturing and trade, as well as among the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world.
Thai women are active leaders in the economic life of Thailand. They are the ones whom Latin American business community must talk to if interested in cooperating with the Thai business community. According to the MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, Thailand is among the countries with the highest opportunity for women in the workforce. In a recent Bloomberg Markets survey, Thailand was found to have a high number of women in top finance jobs. Indeed, Thai women can be found in most of the factories that produce the exports of Thailand to Latin America, such as auto parts, rice, fruits, canned goods and canned marine products and textiles. Thai women can be found running world - class service sectors such as restaurants, Thai traditional massage, jewelry, spas and tech/creative industries. Beyond these industries, there is plenty more scope for cooperation in joint ventures in areas such as energy cooperation via ethanol/bio-diesel production, forestry, fisheries, shrimp farming, rubber production, meat production and the tech industry.
Economic frameworks such as APEC serve as important networking grounds for Thailand and Latin American officials and business men and women to explore mutually beneficial opportunities. APEC has several working groups for this purpose, such as the APEC Trade Ministerial, APEC Tourism Ministerial, APEC Women and the Economy Forum, APEC SME Ministerial and APEC Food Security Ministerial. Indeed, these arrangements could serve as building blocks for entry into larger free trade agreements, such as the FTAAP. Larger, more economically advanced countries such as Chile and Colombia, OECD member and soon to be OECD member respectively, could serve as gateways for Thailand to smaller markets such as the Andean Community.
As of now, ambitions are much more modest and are starting on a smaller scale. Regional arrangements have only begun to explore deeper trade and investment opportunities, such as ASEAN - MERCOSUR and ASEAN - Pacific Alliance (PA) cooperation. ASEAN countries could support each other in exploring various options, such as through ASEAN Committee in Mexico City or through groupings such as MIKTA, an informal partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia. “The government should support not just large conglomerates, but also SMEs to have the will and capacity to invest in new markets such as Latin America. They could help gauge economic risks, provide a roadmap or framework to allay fears about entering new Latin American markets and navigate local laws and regulations. As a group, Thai companies could pool their resources together to create real impact in Latin America,” suggests one diplomat.
Growing People-to-People Exchanges
The role of the Thai woman and Latin American woman are rapidly changing from caregiver to independent career women. Thanks to a thriving civil society scene, women’s rights and women’s empowerment are increasingly front and center of mainstream politics. Best practices can be exchanged between Thailand and Latin America regarding the promotion of gender equality, poverty reduction programs, conditional cash transfer programs, as well as dealing with sexual abuse and violence stemming from machismo attitudes. “Latin American women are quite advanced in terms of the percentage of women holding high ranks in politics such as in Costa Rica, Brazil or Argentina. Also, there are many Latin American women who publicly get together to form alliances to advocate for socially relevant causes. This is something that Thai women can learn from and be inspired,” shared Pindarica Malyrojsiri, currently working at the Peace Resource Collaborative NGO, and a UPEACE alumni.
“From my travels around Mexico and other Latin American countries, I’ve noticed that indigenous communities receive a lot of support for their livelihoods and culture. Textile weaving is an important work of indigenous women, who not only make a living from this activity but also preserve cultural heritage. The patterns as well as weaving techniques remind me of silk and woven fabrics made by ethnic minorities in Thailand as well,” observes Tipaporn Attasivanon, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand scholarship student who recently completed her BA in International Relations from the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, and will soon join Georgetown University’s Masters of Latin American Studies Program.
While having fierce competition from English, Mandarin, Japanese, French and Korean, there is a sizable number of students studying Spanish and Portuguese languages in Thai universities. High school exchange years with AFS in Latin America are also gaining popularity among young Thais eager to explore unknown regions. Recognizing the importance of educational exchanges, diplomats from both sides are currently exploring how groups such as the ASEAN - PA University Network and the FEALAC University Network could intensify university cooperation and increase the number of scholarships for young people.
Translating works by Latin American authors and poets into Thai could be the first step in promoting the richness of Latin American culture. Works by Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges have already been translated into Thai and are well known among literary circles. Translating a wider range of genres and newer works by Latin American authors would expose Thais to Latin America’s vibrant literary scene even further.
Other cultural exchanges lie in the realm of sport and dance. Salsa, bachata and other Latin style dances are extremely popular among Thais, with salsa bars in Bangkok such as Havana Social, Revolución and La Rueda filled to the brim with salsa enthusiasts during most evenings of the week. Male and female athletes alike have many more opportunities to try out in Latin America and Thailand. There are already quite a number of football players from Latin America in the Thai Premier League. Muay Thai is a wildly popular sport for both men and women in Latin America, with many schools cropping up around the continent.
Once only the realm of official level visits, nowadays tourism to Latin America is gaining popularity among ordinary Thais. At the same time, Thai women are increasingly confident about traveling to ‘off the beaten path’ destinations. “Nowadays, it is not considered unusual for Thai women to travel solo. As long as we are provided with adequate information and reassurance about our destinations, we Thais will go anywhere,” observes Monthon “Mint” Kasantikul, a solo female traveler and blogger at I Roam Alone. She is widely followed on social media for her travels in Latin America, such as the Patagonian region and Venezuela. When asked about the differences in attitudes towards men and women in Latin America, Mint remarks that navigating Latin American culture could be an initial challenge for Thai women. “Latin American women appear much more confident with their bodies and expressing emotions than Thai women. But men still largely control public and private spaces. The pervasive and highly visible culture of machismo in Latin America is different from the more subtle gender discrimination in Thailand. For example, catcalling can be a nuisance, something we are not accustomed in Thailand. As a woman traveling alone, one needs to be constantly vigilant and know when to have our guard up. But while safety is a real concern in Latin America, traveling there is really no different from any other destination. Just keep your wits about you while appreciating everything the region has to offer. Friendly locals will go out their way to help you in whatever situation you are in,” she adds.
Thai women in various fields have been very active in fostering growing ties between Thailand and Latin America, as well as changing the perception that these relations should only be seen through the traditional lens of “South - South” ties. The scope and level of interaction demonstrates that the reality has already taken off beyond defined labels and so-called traditional areas of cooperation. Judging from current trends that Thai women have worked hard to generate, Thailand - Latin American ties will only go from strength to strength from here.
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.