This Friday the British Ambassador to Thailand, Asif Ahmad, relinquishes his post and goes back home to learn another language and come back to South East Asia to head up another, as yet un-named mission. You won’t get fawning interviews with Ambassadors on this website. That’s the stuff of coffee table mags and British glossies.
But it is worth noting Asif Ahmad’s departure if not for some of the well received but diplomatically quite outspoken comments he has recently made. In his final speech to the British Chamber of Commerce on the eastern seaboard he has for the first time accepted the reality of the fact that some parts of Thailand could become the new ‘Costa Del Crime’, and criticised the fleecing of tourists.
Of course I have been saying that for 15 years. It was brought home to me again recently when I came across a newly arrived knuckle dragging British bar manager snorting coke in his bar’s rest room and watched as another Brit arrived with a package – which also had to be delivered in the toilet. (It was not my local).
Asif Ahmad’s short tenure here was however only publicly controversial in respect of his Islamic Asian origin. At one stage some Chamber members complained because they did not get bacon at an Ambassadorial breakfast.(Yes. Its no big deal) Of course rumours abound about other disagreements but at the end of the day we should give Ambassadors their due…er, as highly paid well maintained civil servants.
(Digression) My favourite Ambassador of all time is Craig Murray, formerly Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who the ‘The Guardian reported’ became not so much our man in Uzkebistan, but ‘our Uzbekistan problem’. Murray was outspoken against the regime’s lack of human rights, is a kilt wearing Scot, and liked whisky, dancing girls and apparently ‘lascivious bars’.
In fact Craig Murray married an Uzbek belly dancer and his wife Nadira (right) even joined him in his fight not only against the totalitarian and torturous Uzbeki regime but the British Government, but of course in a totally British/Uzbek way.
I did get to ‘The Stans’ while working for ‘The Times’. I was on the podium with Niyazov – or ‘The Great Turkmenbashi’ for his birthday celebrations way back when, having posed as an archeologist professor to get into the country. I met the ‘spooks’ from pretty much all the countries’ with missions there and got accustomed to its and their customs. One could only smoke in restaurants – not on the street. At dinner gatherings one had to down a vodka to toast everybody at the same table. (Some achievment when the group could total 30 and they had to toast you back!)
Murray had not yet been deposed yet by the Foreign Office and he was a legend. Steps were taken to interview him in Tashkent but alas I never got round to seeing him before the balloon went up amd he was recalled – though today I follow his meanderings on his blog
Craig and Nadira – Picture Les Wilson
Despite the totalitarian regime the capital Ashgabad was also a bit of a riot and of course had whisky, belly dancers and a lot more.
Spooks on the podium at Ashgabat for Nyazov’s birthday bash. Very sadly Stuart O’Neill (second from right) a close friend, who often visited me in Bangkok, died of a heart attack later at the headquarters of the Serious Organised Crime Squad in London after returning from a posting in Kiev. He left a wife Yulya and baby boy. Fluent Russian speaker Stuart was excellent at his job and an all round excellent human being and friend, His death was one of those ‘Is there a God?’ moments.
(end of digression)
His Excellency Asif Ahmad does of course not have secret desires for whisky and belly dancers as far as I know, but in his speech on a less spectacular level he does also complain about rip-offs on tourists and British crooks, and says he feels Thai police are not pulling their weight. That’s why I feel probably its worth a wider audience than those paying 900 baht for a BCCT dinner (for which incidentally the Ambassador said people could get more pleasure in Walking Street, Pattaya, either underestimating his own value or the real costs of the certain pleasures Pattaya offers above the level of feral) and even though the local press in Pattaya reported it, they missed his points.
While British police are gearing up to deal with villains who are re-settling here there’s little they can do about those who commit crimes against fellow countrymen here and who rely people of ‘local influence’ to keep them out of Thai jails.
Ladies and Gentlemen I am truly flattered that you have invited me back to Pattaya.
You know that I have been to Pattaya a few times to look at the work of our Consulate. The last time was to reopen the office after we had recruited a new Vice Consul and a Consular Assistant. Because of staffing changes in Pattaya, we are going to have to reduce the number of days we are open to three days a week. Colleagues will come down here from Bangkok to support the Pattaya Consulate.
The biggest users of the consular service in Pattaya are long term residents who need to get a pension or income letter from us.
Quite frankly, neither the British residents in Thailand nor the Embassy want to have to produce this expensive and meaningless letter.
We are in discussion with the Thai authorities on whether they can do without this extra paperwork.
I don’t hold out hope of immediate success on this. But we will see how far we get.
More generally, we are also looking at how much of the routine work we do for citizens can be done on line. That should save you time and money.
You have also heard me talk about issues that concern you with the authorities in Britain and here in Pattaya.‘Little hope for British pensioners’
I have listened to pensioners here who are unhappy that their state pension is frozen. Frozen because they have chosen to retire in Thailand as opposed to a country where the UK has a special agreement.
I have spoken to our ministers and they are fully aware of the situation. The yearly cost of raising pensions worldwide would be 655 million Pounds. And if the payment was backdated the global cost would be 5 billion Pounds.
In the current economic climate, Ministers are not going to give overseas Britons priority over what they see as more pressing needs at home.
You have raised with me the time it takes to get a new British passport. Because the Foreign Office no longer has responsibility for issuing passports outside Britain, I could easily say that it has nothing to do with me, speak to the Home Office.
But because I understand the real difficulties of not having a valid passport in your hand, I have pushed for a faster and more efficient service.
We have got some exceptions agreed for Thailand. You don’t have to send your old passport back. For those of you who have a genuine need, you can have a second passport. But the real solution you want is to have the same ability as an applicant in Britain, a fast service, even if you have to pay extra for it.‘I would not keep chickens in that shed led alone people’
At the last dinner here, I said that I had complained to the Immigration Police in Pattaya about the state of the room used to hold people in detention. I told the Thai Foreign Minister at the time, I would not keep chickens in the shed let alone people. The detention room has been refurbished and now has the basic facilities a person needs.
That said, I would not recommend it as a place to stay in Pattaya.
I must also say that Mayor Ittiphol of Pattaya has impressed me. In the floods last year, we, in the British Embassy were running out of drinking water. When I visited Mayor Ittiphol, he asked his staff to load my car with as much water as we could take. And when I offered to pay he said no charge.
As the floods approached Bangkok, we had to choose a fallback location for the Embassy in case we were forced to close, we chose Pattaya. That was our way of giving the city a vote of thanks. Mayor Ittiphol has a vision for the city that could make it a better place to live and work in. And I think holiday makers will find it more attractive if he succeeds in delivering his promises.
We have worked with him to help teachers and Police identify victims of paedophiles and to lock up these vile perpetrators.‘Britons think they can turn resorts into another Costa Del Crime’
We are also working very closely with the Royal Thai Police to track down on Britons who think they can turn Thailand’s resorts into another Costa Del Crime. Staff from the British Police are being added to our Embassy to break up international crime networks. As business people and fine upright citizens, the last thing you need here is a den of British thieves.
With the Thai Police, we have secured the arrests of a number of drug and people traffickers. The partnership is working.
I would be more than happy if the Thai Police enforced laws that protect citizens. As far as I am concerned, the Police can fine or arrest anyone British or Thai if they ride a motor bike without a helmet or charge people for reckless or drunk driving.‘Sadly police in Thailand are not as good as they should be’.
Sadly, the Police in Thailand are not as good as they should be in dealing with crime against tourists.
Follow through on incidents including rape and murder is well short of the standards we want.
The instinct here is to try and pretend nothing bad has happened. Investigations, if they do happen are slow and half hearted.
There is a fear that bad news will frighten off tourists. In my view, ignoring crime is even more scary. Arrests and prosecution build confidence in law and order.‘This is not rocket science. Everyone knows who the bad guys in the jet-ski trade are’.
On the beaches, the jet ski problem has not of course been solved. But we have Mayor Ittiphol on the case. He wants to have licensed operators who are insured. But quite frankly, this is not rocket science. Everyone knows who the bad guys in the jet ski trade are.
And in Bangkok, I have left senior ministers in no doubt about the need to act against scams and practices that have damaged the expensive image campaign of Amazing Thailand.
We have put together a group of Ambassadors from Europe and other like minded countries to talk to the Thai government with one voice.Tourists will go to resorts where they can worry about getting sun burnt and not their fingers getting burnt.
Quite simply, with Burma opening up and with so much choice in other parts of the region,
Western tourists, the ones who spend a lot of money here, will go to resorts where they can worry about getting sun burnt and not their fingers getting burnt.
Those of you who rely on tourism to make a living, surely you want quality not quantity.
I can also see property ownership becoming more of a problem in Thailand for foreigners. Especially in high density resorts.
The rules need to be more clear. Dispute resolution, especially if they involve the courts, will need to be more effective. Commercial property leases need to be far longer than they are. And on leases I think I am winning. I am told that 60 or even 99 years may be allowed soon.
(Please nobody tell Drew Noyes this! AD)
After the floods last year, we have asked the Thai government to turn their statements of intent to reality on the ground.
Many industrial estates had a lucky escape.
Most of you had logistics problems getting your supplies around the country.
Longer term, the country needs better roads and a complete overhaul of rail transport.
We have talked to the owners of the big industrial parks and the government about the need for better social infrastructure in Thailand.
You cannot keep bringing in labour from Isan to Chonburi, and not invest in proper housing, schools and hospitals.
This is bad for family life and damages society.
Nor can you rely on Burmese manpower to fill the gap.
Especially if Burmese people continue to be mistreated in Thailand.
Productivity of Thai labour will need to go up.
English language ability is not good in Thailand.
And with the ASEAN Economic Community shaping up, lack of English will be a drag on Thailand.
The British Council is stepping up language training and I have asked them to look closely at the Eastern Seaboard.
Business is doing its part and the Thai economy has been resilient despite the floods and dysfunctional politics.
I don’t want to make predictions about where Thai politics will head next, but I get the feeling that all sides are now punch drunk.
The military, the Democrats, Pheu Thai, the shirts of all colours have thrown all the punches they have…and no one has emerged as the winner.
Maybe politics for politics sake will give way to governing the country and delivering real outcomes for the people of Thailand.
Britain needs a vibrant Thai economy.
We remain the largest investor in the country from the EU.
Two way trade in goods and services topped 5 billion pounds last year.
Our 1 billion pound trade deficit with Thailand will be wiped out now that exports of steel from Redcar have started to arrive in Thailand.
This is the steel plant Sahavirya bought last year. At that time it was the largest single investment in the UK from abroad.
We are going to need British business to succeed in growing markets in Thailand and the region.
And if you are in a business that adds value to the UK, we will work with you to help you succeed.
I leave Thailand in three week’s time. My 8 years of dealing with this country, two of them as Ambassador have certainly been eventful.
From the Tsunami of 2004, to the rise and fall of Thaksin, the yellow shirts at the airport, passengers stranded in Thailand with the closure of UK airports with volcanic ash clouds, the red shirts camped around our embassy, the elections, floods …all events that could have knocked Thailand well and truly off course.
And yet this country keeps bouncing back.
The people keep on smiling and life goes on.
And that is what I leave this country with.
A great admiration for the resilience of the people.
Admiration for the way in which families hold together.
And admiration for how old people are treated here.
With care and respect.