From the Netherlands, with love

Dutch Ambassador Karel Hartogh has big ideas on what his own country and Thailand can do for each other

Karel Hartogh. Photo: Somchai Poomlard

If you ever get the chance to chat with His Excellency Karel Hartogh, the Netherlands Ambassador to Thailand, you would be amazed at how the breadth of his well-informed conversational topics (and his involvement in them) can range from beach dangers and endometriosis to flood management and yoghurt.

In fact, it's the ambassador's openness that brought about the info that Dutch dairy giant Campina is interested in making Thailand their Asean distribution hub. Looking to bring more private sectors to the embassy, Ambassador Hartogh reveals that the old residence in the compound on Wireless Road is now available for Dutch companies to rent out for seminars, receptions and dinners -- and not just a secluded cloister of bureaucracy. Campina actually had its press conference at the residence two weeks ago.

"I want to make as much use of this plot as possible, because it's beautiful, historical, in the middle of the city, and people are interested in it," he says of the leafy property -- which features the Netherlands' famous bright-hued polyester cows that roam around the gardens and are never in one place for long.

Ambassador Hartogh has been posted in Thailand for a year, and one of his ambitions, clearly taking shape, is how much more approachable public diplomacy is becoming, something to be expected of more embassies in the future.

Events the embassy hosts, such as movie nights and King's Day, are slowly finding their footing as a gathering for locals as much as for Dutch expats. The latest King's Day party, usually hosted for Dutch expats, consisted roughly of a third Thais -- a new development he hopes to continue.

"Of course I'd like to see good relations between the Thai and Dutch people reflected in a great number of activities. I'd like to see more people-to-people contact, not only having students in the Netherlands and those kinds of fellowships and partnerships," he says.

An official trade office of the Dutch government was established in Ayutthaya in 1634 -- almost four centuries ago -- but the plot of land where the residence and chancery currently stand was only bought from the royal family in 1949.

Last December, the residence played host to a movie night for Thai cyclists, which conjured up a marvellous sight of hundreds of bikes parked by the ponds and amid the cows on the property. After all, the Netherlands is a land of bicycles, something that Bangkok cyclists envision for their city as well.

The ambassador recalls: "What was very spectacular was people were so enthusiastic about it. We had these big screens on the lawn and had about 500 people watching movies from the Netherlands while drinking Heineken beer and eating Dutch ice-cream. It was wonderful, because everyone was so happy and relaxed. The Dutch community is becoming jealous, saying why are we organising all this for the Thai people and not the Dutch people."

It may only be his first official ambassadorial position abroad, but the internet-savvy Dutchman is managing his own Twitter account and nudging his team to bring a more communal vibe to the embassy's social media accounts by going beyond the usual tourism facts and figures ("My dad gave me WS [whisky sour] every time I visited him abroad, he also served as a diplomat," reads a tweet from June 23, referring to a drink he was served. In another thread, the ambassador engaged in an argument about Brexit).

"Twitter is not that popular back in the Netherlands, but it serves transparency, and we Dutch like democracy, transparency and accountability," he laughs. "I wanted to show not only the Dutch, but also Thais, what we're doing here at this embassy. Many people think diplomats just fly around in first class, drink wine and have parties.

"Here in Thailand, people are getting increasingly critical of public service and what they get from paying taxes, so you have to respect that by giving some view of your activities."

Like the wide range of Dutch businesses active in Thailand (there are currently over 300), the Dutch ambassador himself impressively tackles a myriad of social and environmental issues in between the merrier things. A quick scroll through his Twitter timeline shows meetings with countless ministers of various countries. One picture shows him meeting with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha a few months ago to discuss flood prevention.

That's one thing Thailand and the Netherlands have in common: they're both low-lying lands vulnerable to floods. The Dutch government has approached Thai authorities about the possibility of transferring its flood-control expertise to Thailand.

Hartogh says: "Whatever you think of the government in political terms, I think there is a sincere wish by the prime minister to work on improving the water management system in this country. He really feels the need to deliver, and we talked quite extensively."

As a Dutch water-risk-reduction team will arrive in Thailand within a few weeks to access the situation, the ambassador believes the largest problem hindering Thailand is the scattered and decentralised departments.

"Salt intrusion, harbour protection, droughts and floods are things that are all connected," he said.

"If you prevent water from flooding the canals in the rainy season but get water into storage, it serves a purpose for the dry season. You can find a number of solutions that are beneficial in many ways. I think what's been proven in the past by our experts is that you really have to work by bringing people together. Port authorities said they don't have money to pay for the dredging, but did they talk to the authorities of Chao Phraya River? Dredging the harbour serves other purposes, too, like salt intrusion from rising sea levels. So if you work integratedly, resources start to flow to the places you need them."

The conversation then moved to other topics. The 59-year-old ambassador can talk road safety and discuss the dangers of jet-skiing, beach-management practices and fraud with the minister of tourism and governor of Phuket -- out of concern for Dutch tourists -- among countless other things, but the mention of endometriosis strikes even closer to home.

He brings up the female disease because of his wife's profession as a gynaecologist and how new procedures of treating period pains and infertility being implemented in the Netherlands are currently in the interest of Samitivej Hospital and Ramathibodi Hospital. Since she is a royal obstetrician -- to use a simpler term -- who assisted the current queen of the Netherlands in delivering her three children, the Dutch royal family were keen on having her within the country, thus leading to the ambassador's unusual career cycle that had him based in The Hague for the past 20 years.

But after his long stints as the private secretary to the minister of Foreign Affairs, director of Asia Department in the Foreign Ministry and now with a grown daughter who has left the house, Ambassador Hartogh finally feels he can take on foreign assignments wholeheartedly and returns to Thailand with great pleasure, like the 200,000 Dutch who visit every year.

"Thailand has a special place in the hearts of many Dutch people," he said with a smile. "I think the only ones earlier than us were the Portuguese, but [our relationship] is so long-standing, broad and still expanding. We do have a special relationship."