Philippe Kridelka has been the Belgian Ambassador to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia for the past three and a half years. Now as he finishes his tour in the region, he offers us some thoughts in an EXIT INTERVIEW with Thai Enquirer.
On the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemics:
The Belgian community in Thailand is very grateful for the hospitality offered by the Thai people. Belgians here have a lot of admiration for the way the crisis has been handled in Thailand, which is among the countries in the world that are most preserved from the virus. But the Belgians of Thailand also realize how difficult this period is for the most modest segments of Thai society, for those who lost their job and have a family to feed.
On the nature of diplomacy:
It is a job that has changed tremendously since he first started in the foreign service, Ambassador Kridelka said.
When he started his career in the 1980’s, one of Belgium’s foreign service’s priorities in a region like South-East Asia would have been the cooperation with partner governments in the fight against communism, analysing local political situations and reporting back to Brussels. Today, the Soviet Union has disappeared, and each country tries to promote and protect its interests in a multi-polar world. Building the European Union further is one of the main priorities of Belgium’s diplomacy, and one of the ambassador’s priorities here has been to contribute actively and to support the work of the EU Delegations in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Yangon or Vientiane.
The embassy’s other priorities include supporting the Belgian investors in Thailand, serving the Belgian citizens (a community that was growing fast in Thailand before Covid) or launching “public diplomacy” initiatives in order to promote Belgium’s image in the region and the friendship between Thailand and Belgium.
As important as traditional “purely” political reporting are initiatives like the opening of a joined degree for young Thai and Belgian engineers by KU Leuven University and Thammasat, or the preparatory work by the EU delegation in Bangkok for the restart of the negotiations on a free trade agreement giving Thai companies access to the 450 million consumers EU market, or the exchanges between Thai and Belgian civil society practitioners on themes like road safety, LGBTI rights or equality between men and women.
On Free Trade:
Thailand was actually the first country in ASEAN with which the European Union started the negotiation of a Free Trade Agreement. But because of the 2014 coup all trade talks were suspended. Since then, Singapore and Vietnam have negotiated free trade agreements with the Union. Both Thailand and the EU are now showing interest to resume the talks at the relevant moment. And both sides are completing their due diligence with the relevant stakeholders. The dialogue with our public opinions, both in Thailand and in the Union, will be an important part of the exercise, as economic growth should be at the service of our peoples, and not our peoples at the service of economic growth.
On Thailand’s place in the world:
The ambassador hopes that Thailand will soon be able to regain its role as a major diplomatic actor; nobody should forget that ASEAN was created in Bangkok, and that Thai diplomats played a major role in its elaboration. Belgium and its partners from the EU are certainly ready to cooperate with Thailand in this regard. Like countries as Korea, Mexico, Morocco or Singapore, Thailand has both an important economic weight (the 2nd largest economy in ASEAN) and a well-educated population with a dynamic civil society and media scene.
And it enjoys also a high level of confidence and familiarity with both the West and our Chinese partners. Thai elites spend a part of their studies in Western countries, its captains of industry or its academics often share the same “Weltanschauung” as their Western counterparts, and Thailand is a close partner of OECD. And, on the other hand, geography, history and the important sino-thai community are all important foundations to develop, thinks the ambassador, a flourishing relationship between Thailand and China in many fields. Our multi-polar world needs countries like Thailand which can be “bridges” between the big players in the West, the East, the South and the North, help foster common goals and a better mutual understanding.
This is also evident if we consider Thailand’s important role within the UN system, as it is both a member of the G77+China group of “Southern countries”, and a traditional friend and partner of Western democracies.
On Human rights:
Together with its EU partners, Belgium engages with the entire region on human rights issues and Thailand is no different. While challenges remain, the Ambassador is pleased to see Thailand progressing on issues such as political pluralism, combatting gender-based violence or LGBT issues. He hopes Thailand becomes the second country in Asia where marriage equality happens.
On Future challenges:
Next month, Ambassador Kridelka will become Belgium’s permanent representative to the UN in New York. In this capacity, he will represent his country in the UN Security Council, where Belgium currently holds one of the 10 rotating seats.
In New York, Kridelka’s priorities will include contributing to a solid and respected role for the European Union in all aspects of the work of the UN, making sure Belgium’s priorities at the Security Council (like the protection of children in armed conflicts, the improvement of UN mechanisms convening transactional justice or the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance) will continue to be reflected in the work of the UN system-wise.
On what he is reading for the time being:
The ambassador is an avid reader, and he is preparing his departure for the UN in New York by reading books about China. He thinks that, in order to understand China better, Westerners should keep learning more, including about the Chinese people’s terrible sufferings in the 20th century. Books like Chi Pang-Yuan “The Great Flowing River”, Yu Hua’s “Brothers” or Orville Schell’s “Wealth and Power” are not only fascinating books, they also helped Kridelka to get a better understanding on how Chinese elites define their national interests.
“Myanmar comes up regularly on the Security Council” adds Kridelka, who enjoyed very much during the lockdown reading Thant Myint-U’s last book “The Hidden History of Myanmar”, with its clever description of the decision making processes among the Burmese military establishment and the importance of European colonisation on the development of Burmese nationalism in the 20th century.
Last but not least, the ambassador enjoys reading detective novels, especially by Belgian writer Georges Simenon.
On what he will miss most:
Of all the people and nice memories he will miss from Thailand, those Kridelka will miss most are probably the students he met during his stint in our country: members of the alumni association of Thais who studied in Belgium, the Thammasat students he met when the Rector of KU Leuven (one of Belgium’s best universities) came to Bangkok to sign a new cooperation agreement, the students in architecture and in landscape management from Chula university, who helped the ambassador redesign the garden around the Belgian residence in Bangkok and organize guided tours of the residence, or the students in political sciences from Ubon Rachathani university who impressed the ambassador so much through their enthusiasm and commitment to contribute to Thailand’s modernization and democratisation process.