Indian ambassador to Thailand H.E. Suchitra Durai on strengthening ties between our two great nations.
By Christy Lau
The responsibilities of an ambassador are far more comprehensive than envisioned. Behind the glamorous façade of evening soirées and consular hosted events, lie the building blocks that majorly influence the relationship between India and Thailand. After all, ambassadors aren’t just the public face of their home country, representing the policies and opinions of their country’s leader, but it is also their duty to communicate key foreign intelligence between their home country and host nation.
On November 13th, 2018, Bangkok welcomed H.E. Suchitra Durai, the 24th Indian ambassador to Thailand and the first woman to serve here in 10 years. Her 30-year career has spanned various ministerial roles in the Foreign Service in South America, Europe, and in North, South and Eastern Africa. As she has previously held the posts of High Commissioner of India to Kenya, India’s Ambassador to Somalia and Permanent Representative of India to the UN offices in Nairobi (UNON) from 2015 to 2018, she is well-versed in the manifold duties of a diplomat.
With this being her first ambassadorial posting in Asia, she has an unwavering determination to make the most of her time, and has started her tenure with a keen desire to reach out to the Indian communities here with the aim to bring the two nations closer on a political footing. Masala shares an exclusive interview with her Excellency at The Embassy of India, Bangkok to discuss her prolific career to date, and discover her plans to make a difference and take diplomatic relations to the next level.
What inspired you to pursue a career in diplomatic service?
Two main factors greatly influenced my decision. I had a grandfather who was very senior in the civil service during the British times, and so my father wanted me or my sister to follow in his footsteps and become a civil servant, specifically for the Indian Administrative Service. However, when I was 12 years old, an incident changed the course of my life. I had a friend in class whose brother had joined the Foreign Service. She shared all these fascinating tales about him being posted to Moscow and I decided it would suit my temperament better to pursue this path.
Take us through your career in the Foreign Service? What achievements are you most proud of?
It’s very difficult to pinpoint because in a 30-year career, I’ve served in many countries and every country had something special to offer. I would say my posting in Kenya was one of the most satisfying, because I was really able to make an impact.
We had a lot of high-level visits and exchanges between the two sides. Trade and commerce links were already there, but my main achievement was the interaction between the embassy and the community. The Indian community was very
vibrant, and they had never had an outreach from the embassy
the way it was done during my three-year term
Being an ambassador is a demanding and multifaceted job with various duties. What are some aspects of your role that people may be surprised to learn about?
People would be surprised to learn that we actually do a lot of hard work. There is a stereotype that being an ambassador means having a glass of wine at a party every evening. Yes, that is a very important aspect of diplomacy, but diplomacy is really about reaching out to the community. It takes a lot of persuasion and interpersonal skills. Furthermore, the embassy acts as the one-stop site for every Indian in distress. We’ve had to evacuate people from all types of disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis and war-torn environments.
Being an ambassador can be very challenging, but also very enriching. I’ve learned so much about India through my relations with the communities where my postings are located. During my posting in Kenya, I learned a lot about Gujarat, as more than 50 percent of the Indian population were from there.
What were some memorable challenges you faced and overcame?
I look at everything as an opportunity. I’ve been in many interesting situations. I was posted to Cairo as Minister of Culture during the Arab revolution, which was a time of great political instability. I headed the Indian Cultural Centre, and was able to ensure that it ran without a single day’s break, while other foreign missions were actually closing down. Despite tanks rolling down the streets and the overall climate of fear, we would continue with our classes and encourage people to come by offering them safety and protection.
I also looked after Mogadishu in my most recent capacity as ambassador to Somalia. Many people were scared to visit Mogadishu because every other week, there would be a huge bomb explosion. Nevertheless, I visited several times.
During your tenure here, what are your short-term and long-term objectives?
For the short-term, I intend to ensure more fruitful relations between India and Thailand. Thailand is assuming chairmanship of ASEAN in 2019, and as ASEAN is very central to the Indian government’s foreign policy, it is vital to ensure that we create strong and close ties between the two nations. I am hopeful that we will have a higher level representative from India visiting Thailand and vice versa.
The long-term objective would be to ensure that India and Thailand are fully integrated economically. When the trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand is complete, there will be a seamless movement of vehicles from Manipur in India all the way to Bangkok, which will take trade to whole new levels, benefiting all three countries.
Maritime cooperation is another area we are looking at because we are all Indian Ocean littoral countries and it is in our best interest to effect long-lasting partnerships.
What are some current pressing problems that you need to address?
I’m very happy I’ve been posted to a county that has such a trouble-free relationship with India. There are no major issues between our two nations.Of course, we do have negotiations on various things we are working on. This includes a Memorandum of Understanding(MOU) in the areas of security cooperation, ICT and digital technology, which I hope to conclude soon.
What policies from the Government of India are you focused on upholding here in Thailand?
India had the Look East policy launched in 1991, which has since evolved into a more action-oriented Act East policy, currently ongoing. ASEAN is central to that policy, and India and ASEAN recently celebrated 25 years of Dialogue Partnership. In January this year, we actually had all the heads of the ASEAN states invited to New Delhi for a summit-level partnership. Thailand, being a very important member of ASEAN, will be the country taking the lead on this, so it is imperative we maintain good relations. The ultimate goal is greater engagement and greater movement of people, goods, and services between the two sides.
In what areas do you think India and Thailand can work together to help each other benefit?
We are already looking at advancing trade and increasing investment from both sides. There are a number of Thai companies looking at using India as a manufacturing
base, because of the skilled labour and business-friendly environment.Tourism is another area India can learn from Thailand. Last year, Thailand welcomed 35 million tourists, a truly remarkable achievement.
How do you plan to entice Thai tourists to go to India?
Ultimately, it is the people’s choice. For most Thais, India has been the destination for pilgrimages with about 100,000 visitors per year touring the Buddhist Circuit. However, most locals are not aware of the diverse range of attractions the country offers, from the luxurious palaces of Rajasthan to the scenic beaches of Goa.That is why we held the Incredible India campaign during November 2018, where we shared these attractions with local tour operators. It is the embassy’s hope that they will able to increase the number of visitors to the country.
How do you plan to enhance the relationships between the Indians in Thailand and India?
We already have very good connectivity between the two sides. At the moment, 18 Indian cities are connected to different parts of Thailand. Additionally, India’s government has many initiatives to honour and recognise the role of the overseas Indian. Every year, we celebrate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. In 2019, it will celebrated in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and many overseas Indians have been requested to register and participate. We also have the Know India (Bharat Ko Janiye in Hindi) programme to ensure that the younger generation gets to know their home country.
However, I would like to focus on increasing the educational exchange. At the moment, we offer 70 to 80 short-term training slots and about 20 university-level scholarships for local students to go to India. Many locals are not aware of the numerous higher education opportunities and I look forward to changing that.
How well do you know the Indian community here in Thailand?
I’ve been in Bangkok for less than a month, but have managed to meet several members of various Indian communities. The start of my ambassadorship coincided with the celebration of Guru Nanak Jayanti at the Gurudwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, and I was able to attend that function to offer prayers and address the people. Moreover, I had a CEOs meet recently, where I met the top executives doing business in India and Thailand. I’m in the process of reaching out to the rest.
What were your initial impressions?
Extremely positive. The community here is very vibrant, hardworking and peaceful. When I went to the Gurudwara, the Sikh community told me about the excellent relations they enjoy with the leadership of the country. It acts like a bridge for us. I may be the official ambassador, but all foreign Indians are each the ambassadors of India in their own way. They act as a force multiplier. We have our duties as the embassy, but they enhance our work and help us advance it to the next level.
Do you have any advice for the leaders of the community here?
Many of them are doing wonderful things for the people, so I would urge them to keep up the good work and stay united. Keep your own identity, and continue to be a bridge between India and Thailand.