Thailand: an emerging middle power in Asia
As a child, Remco van Wijngaarden wanted to become a diplomat. He has been the Dutch ambassador to Thailand for a year now. A wonderful country to live with his husband and children. ‘We're an regular family here. And Thailand is very interesting to work in, the country is gaining political and economic importance in the region.’
What was the first thing that struck you about Thailand?
‘My husband and I have been holidaying in Thailand for years, and that includes when we lived in China. What struck me initially was the city of Bangkok. It is the second most popular city in the world for tourists, and it’s obvious why. It has everything and offers an exciting mix of contrasts. Skyscrapers alongside old neighbourhoods, and chic Michelin-starred restaurants alongside stalls selling the world’s best street food. It’s such a wonderful and pleasant juxtaposition. Bangkok is an international city and yet the culture here is still distinctly Thai.
What I enjoy about living here is that I now have the opportunity to learn about life in Thailand beyond what the tourists see. And now that the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, I can finally start travelling to other parts of this large country. And I can visit Laos and Cambodia, which the embassy in Bangkok also serves.
I am also the Netherlands’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, (UNESCAP), the UN’s largest regional organisation. Its aim is to promote socioeconomic growth in the region. The Netherlands has been a member since 1947 because, at the time UNESCAP was established, the Netherlands still had sovereignty over areas in the region.’
You have three young children and are married to a man. How do people in Thailand respond to your rainbow family?
‘We have been here a year now and things are going very well. Before Thailand, we lived in Shanghai where I was consul-general. Even though Shanghai is China’s most tolerant city, life was not always simple for us as a family. Often we couldn’t be fully open about our identities and had to retreat back into ‘the closet’, as it were.'
'Only once did the Chinese authorities extend an informal invitation for an event to my husband Carter. Here, on the very first day I was introduced at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was asked how my husband and family were doing and whether we were enjoying living in Thailand. Invitations to events here are always for both of us, and that makes a world of difference.'
'However, our marriage is unfortunately not legally recognised in Thailand, and that can sometimes be a hassle. But there is a lot of public support for same-sex marriage. Some temples also bless same-sex marriages. And the Thai government recently approved registered partnerships for LGBTIQ+ couples, which is a major step towards greater equality in Thailand.
'My eldest daughter is black and our two youngest children are biracial, as is my husband. We want to help our kids become resilient and at the same time protect them from racism and discrimination.’
Here we are a regular family. At the same time, I am increasingly aware that we can serve as an example to others. I was recently involved in the opening of an online workshop about LGBTIQ+ storytelling, which the Netherlands funded. I spoke briefly to the audience about my husband and children – more to set them at ease than anything else. The impact was bigger than I had expected. While I was talking I heard people cheering and applauding. And people asked a lot of questions.
An important question I ask myself when choosing a country to work in, including Thailand, is whether I can make a difference in terms of my work and whether our family will thrive there. How open and tolerant is the society? My eldest daughter is black and our two youngest children are biracial, as is my husband. We want to help our kids become resilient and at the same time protect them from racism and discrimination.’
What are the main topics the Dutch embassy deals with?
‘Providing consular services is an important part of our work. That includes helping tourists and travellers. Before the pandemic, 200,000 to 250,000 Dutch people visited Thailand every year. Approximately 10,000 Dutch nationals live here. And that number is even higher if you also include those who reside here semi-permanently. We do not know the exact number, as people are not required to register.
The embassy provides emergency assistance to tourists, helps Dutch businesses in Thailand and acts as a sort of host to the Dutch community. We also provide aid and assistance to the 10 or so Dutch nationals in prison here. People have the impression that there are a lot of Dutch nationals in prison in Thailand, for crimes such as drug trafficking, but that is not the case.
Thailand, like the Netherlands, is a low-lying country and it is increasingly having to deal with floods and drought as a result of climate change. By exchanging knowledge we can help each other face these challenges.
In addition, our work here is becoming increasingly focused on economic and political matters. Thailand is a good trade partner and our countries invest considerable amounts in each other. The Netherlands is the largest EU investor in Thailand, which is something that many people in Thailand do not know.
In the areas of agriculture and water management, we hope to increase the exchange of knowledge between the two countries. These are topics that people always speak to me about. They talk to me about the climate too. Thailand, like the Netherlands, is a low-lying country and it is increasingly having to deal with floods and drought as a result of climate change. By exchanging knowledge we can help each other face these challenges.
From a political and diplomatic perspective, Thailand is a very interesting country. It is part of the Indo-Pacific region, which is steadily gaining more importance as a partner to Europe. Thailand is a neutral country, a solid middle power in the region and it has a relatively large number of NGOs.
I have been surprised by the openness with which all kinds of human rights topics can be discussed with the authorities here. This does not mean that there are no points for concern – take freedom of expression and the persecution of human rights activists, for example. But generally speaking, compared to other countries in the region, the human rights situation here is okay, and there’s a lot of room for discussion when it comes to topics such as LGBTQ+ rights.’
I read that even as a little boy you wanted to be a diplomat so that you could solve problems in the world. Can you, as an ambassador, really make such a difference?
‘I grew up in Madagascar, where my father worked for Radio Netherlands Worldwide. Thanks to him, I grew up hearing news from all over the world. It turned me into a real news junkie, haha. Yet, even as a boy I knew that I did not want to be a journalist, but that I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to really do something about the problems I heard about on the news. And being a diplomat is something I enjoy. As an ambassador you can absolutely make a difference. Not on your own, but together with other countries and organisations.’
What do you wish to achieve in your role as ambassador to Thailand?
‘I would very much like to strengthen the political side of the embassy’s work. So much is happening in Asia – the rise of China, for example. This is very visible in Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, things are slightly more complicated. We, the Netherlands, must maintain contact with the Thai authorities and with civil society. Besides this, I want to make it easier for the Dutch community and Dutch tourists to access our services, both digitally and in person. For example, by expanding the use of a mobile service desk, so that older Dutch nationals, in particular, no longer need to travel all the way to Bangkok just to have a document signed.’
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