Having focused his gaze eastward during his term as deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pisan Manawapat today is devoting his attention to a huge and very promising country to the west of Thailand.
Now holding the fort at the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi, Mr Pisan is on a mission to persuade Thai businessmen and the public that the opportunities available in India are second to none, and if Thai investors continue to procrastinate, it will be too late.
The man who was Thailand’s lead negotiator for the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement (JTEPA) has been pulling out all the stops. Not long ago he set up a meeting for Thai investors with Narendra Modi — touted by some as a potential prime ministerial candidate — to assure Thai businesses about the policy support India offered.
“Thailand is not paying enough attention to what is happening in India and this will make us lose out in the long term,” he admitted during a recent talk with Asia Focus.
Thais, he says, tend to judge other people based on surface impressions.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover, as the old saying goes. For India, the cover is often not glossy, maybe slightly rough, but there is a lot of content inside,” he said.
“Indians can do very glossy production too, high end and at times better than ours, but we have mostly had the stereotyped perception of lower-end things.”
Some Thai attitudes toward Indians border on racist and yet they are heard even in so-called educated circles. Mr Pisan has seen plenty of evidence to shatter the stereotypes.
He recalls a visit to a Gujarat diamond-cutting factory that employs about 4,000 workers, where the security guards were unarmed and no one searched staff going in or out despite the presence of some $200 million worth of diamonds in the building. Also at the IT giant Infosys in Bangalore where 45,000 young Indians work, he did not see any litter on the 80-acre campus.
“When we say that Indians are not terribly honest, then that shows how quickly we jump to conclusions about this vast country,” he noted.
As for himself, Mr Pisan admits the posting to India has been one of the most rewarding experiences of a foreign-service career that goes back three decades. “I think I have learned far more about the world than it the four postings in different continents I had held previously.”
In his view, all those who see India as a country that is backward because there are cows in the streets, or other superficial signs of poverty, are not paying attention to what is really going on in the country.
Not all diplomats would consider India a “Grade A” posting compared with the United States, European countries or Japan. Mr Pisan himself was Thailand’s ambassador to the EU before he was given the Delhi job two years ago, but he says he has found a lot of fulfillment in the country that was the birthplace of Buddhism.
He freely admits that he’s not fond of bureaucratic work, long speeches and the like, and believes being an ambassador is a less stressful job. Why? Well he says, “One can be one’s own boss.”
His term as deputy permanent secretary from 2003-07, Mr Pisan says, was one of the “most exhausting” jobs he had undertaken. He was in charge of overseeing bilateral relations with the rest of the world and accompanying the premier and ministers on their overseas visits.
As an old-school diplomat who came up through the ranks long before “color politics” took root in Thailand, Mr Pisan admits nonetheless that he admired the decision-making ways of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
“In my view, Thailand’s regional and international standing reached the peak in respectability during Thaksin’s time, and the breakup and political division [that followed] was the worst.”
He says he admired Thaksin’s foreign policy vision, adding that the premier did not intervene in any way in the long and delicate negotiations for the JTEPA.
“I can say that was one of the best periods in my career,” he recalls of the period when he frequently worked late into the night trying to accomplish the deal which took five years to negotiate.
But having worked so long and laboriously, Mr Pisan says that at age 56, maybe it’s time for him to start to take a back seat and take things at a slower pace.
“I don’t want anything more from my career. I think I’ve learned a lot and taken great satisfaction from the outcome of my work. Hence, for my next assignment before retirement, I will be too old for a hectic post,” he admits.
But he says he won’t go begging for any position because that’s beneath the dignity of bureaucrats. No ministry officials should have to lobby to advance their careers, in his view.
“I do not kowtow to politicians, I don’t want to have to feel ‘boon koon’ (gratitude) to anyone. I have my pride and feel we should not be used, except for work that serves public interests. I may not be a favourite of the political masters, but you will earn their respect if you are faithful to your professionalism.”
Being a straight talker, he admits, is one of his weaknesses and at times people may draw a different connotation from his remarks.
With 31 years of service under his belt with the ministry, Mr Pisan admits his energy level is falling, especially when he has to read long cables and boring official reports.
These days, he says, his working style and energy levels are the opposite of those of his first director at the ministry – former foreign minister Kasit Piromya, who Mr Pisan says worked much harder as he grew older.
Still, he plans to undertake as many visits as possible throughout India during the remaining time he is there. For one thing, he appreciates how his time in the country has helped him learn a lot of things about dharma and life.
“Since I have come to India, I have learned the virtue of dharma, the virtue of patience and uncertainty.”
Mr Pisan has managed to visit all of the significant Buddhist religious sites in India and was even ordained at Bodhgaya, the place where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment.
But his favorite among the various religious sites is Saravasti, about four hours’ drive from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. This is the place where Lord Buddha stayed the longest, about 25 phansa (lent seasons).
He says that Thais have a lot of things in common with Indians and they should realise that.
“Therefore my message is that Thai people should be open-minded about India, because we have embraced their culture, religions, values and traditions. Most of the things we have incorporated into our culture today have been practised by the Indians for thousands of years.”
Mr Pisan says that observing the daily lives of the people in India is like watching a reality show — from the people selling produce on the street, the bicycle repair shop to the person selling paan (betel leaf).
“As long as you feel that there is constant chaos in India, you will not be content with staying in India. Think of it positively, and you will enjoy it,” are his wise words of counsel.
India may look a little chaotic, he says, but in the words of a character in the India-set movie he watched recently, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right at this point, then we are not at the end yet.”
About the author
Writer: Umesh Pandey