Economy first for new US ambassador
Trade ties, good governance high on agenda
published : 12 Mar 2020 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
writer: Kornchanok Raksaseri
After a year and a half, a new US ambassador to Thailand has finally landed. Ambassador Michael G DeSombre, who took up his post earlier this month said taking sides in Thai politics is not the way to go and he will rather focus on promoting businesses, with energy and digital ventures, infrastructure and manufacturing projects also on his radar.
“We Americans support democracy. We support the institution of democracy and fundamental freedom. We do not support any party or any individual,” he said. “We want to try to work with the various portions of the government and the various interested persons to developing better capacity for democracy in Thailand.
“For example, a few months ago we hosted here all the members of parliament who were newly elected and had never served in government before to help introduce them to some of the principles of representative democracy and what it means to be a representer of the people. And I’m looking forward to welcoming some more of them back to the US and bringing them to the halls of Congress and the Senate to help them see what American democracy is like,” he added.
The ambassador on Wednesday spoke to the media but was careful to tread a non-partisan path despite recent disruptions on the political front.
“For the students’ movement in Thailand,” he said, “we are watching what is going on. We support democracy and do not support any specific party so we don’t take sides.”
Asked if he thinks Thailand is democratic or not, he said it is, in its own way. “After the elections of March of last year, we said Thailand had stood up with democratically elected government. Every democracy is different. Every democracy is challenging. Every democracy, quite honestly is messy at times. But Thailand is also young democracy and it’s developing. And we are looking to help Thailand continue down its road, its road to democracy,” he said.
Ambassador DeSombre is the first political appointee to the US ambassador’s post in Thailand in almost 50 years. Formerly a lawyer in business negotiations, Ambassador DeSombre said his focus will be promoting the economic relationship.
“My appointment really reflects President Trump’s priorities for the US-Thai relationship. He particularly wants me to focus on the economic partnership,” he said.
His priorities include energising the US-Thai strategic alliance, strengthening the US-Thai economic partnership and encouraging transparency and good governance.
“My background has been helping American and Western companies expand and invest in Asia for the last 20 years. I plan on continuing to help American and Western companies expand into Thailand as United States’ Ambassador to Thailand,” he added.
Two areas on which I will focus on the economic side are energy and digital. I want to support as much as I can the Thai government’s oil initiatives and try to make sure we increase the digital connectivity and the investment from American digital companies into Thailand.
“I also believe in energy. there’s a lot of interesting opportunities. One area that I’m focusing on is the overlapping claim, a very large gas field between Thailand and Cambodia, and seeing whether there’s an opportunity where we can unlock the potential in that gas field and allow those resources to be developed,” he said.
When reminded of environmental controversies, the ambassador insisted the region needs gas for its energy. “I think Thailand like most countries should look at all forms of energy. Clean energy and renewables are important forms of energy but the need for the Mekong countries for energy cannot be supported only by renewable energy, so gas is a very good alternative that can be developed in a very economically friendly way.
“Infrastructure and other manufacturing projects are a big focus of mine. One real opportunity that Thailand has is drawing in supply chains that previously were in China. Vietnam has been successful in the last few years. Thailand should also be successful at that. And we are also trying to encourage more American and Western companies to move their manufacturing and supply chains to Thailand,” he said.
When asked to talk about his impressions of Thailand, Ambassador DeSombre said he was already familiar with the kingdom so he pays more attention to promoting Thailand’s role in the region.
“I’ve been in Thailand off and on since 1997 so it’s not my first time here. I’ve always loved the country. But it’s my first time living here and I have found living here to be very welcoming and very interesting. Thailand is a very important country within Asean and within the Indo-Pacific.
“So it’s a very important time to be the United States’ ambassador to Thailand because Thailand really is the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific and important to the strategic aspects of the Indo-Pacific strategies.
Among examples of how US-Thai relations can be linked to Bangkok’s role in Asean, the ambassador gave an example of the joint drug suppression operations in which the US enforcement administration works jointly with the Royal Thai Police and its counterparts in Myanmar and Laos.
Finally, Ambassador DeSombre said he does not think the US elections will change policy on US-Thai relations. “We are fortunate the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the Trump administration enjoys its bi-partisan support,” he said.