Pakistanis celebrate heritage

Pakistanis celebrate heritage

From film stars to politicians, ambassador proud of his nation's contribution to Thailand

Asim Iftikhar:
Asim Iftikhar: "It is time to elevate Pakistan to a full dialogue partner of Asean." (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

The Pakistani diaspora in Thailand on Monday celebrates its national day and the laying down of foundations of the independence of the Muslim-majority state in South Asia.

Ahead of Pakistan Day, Pakistani Ambassador to Thailand Asim Iftikhar Ahmad recalled the adoption of the historic resolution that demanded a separate homeland for Indian Muslims in Lahore on March 23, 1940.

"It provided a strategic direction for the freedom movement which gained momentum under the leadership of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In a span of seven years, Pakistan gained its independence [on Aug 14, 1947]," he said.

Mr Ahmad said Pakistanis celebrate this day to renew their commitment to a homeland born out of the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

"At home, there are grand parades and the conferment of national awards. Abroad, our embassies host traditional flag hoisting ceremonies in the morning and receptions in the evening. But in the interest of public health, we have decided not to hold them this year."

Mr Ahmad said hardly anybody realises that a Pakistani diaspora took root in Thailand nearly a century ago in the period leading up to the World War I.

"[However,] most came here during the Second World War as part of the British Army. Some of them settled in Thailand, others went to Malaysia and other parts. It has now entered its fourth or fifth generation," he said.

Since then, the community of Thais of Pakistani origin has grown over time to around 250,000. Mr Ahmad said many of them are renowned in business, entertainment and politics; for instance, Pat Napapa Tantrakul and Kecha Plianvithee.

"In the 80s, he [Kecha] was famous. I guess it was before your time. He would play a villain in movies [such as Pet Tad Pet and Chum Phae]. Many engaged in politics at local and national levels. Deputy Agriculture Minister Mananya Thaiseth is a Thai-Pakistani. The community plays an important part in forging the relationship between the two countries."

Mr Ahmad reaffirmed the country's commitment to bolstering ties with Thailand and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) under Pakistan's Vision East Asia.

"It is time to elevate Pakistan to a full dialogue partner of Asean. It has been a pending issue since the 90s. We think that according full dialogue partnership status will give momentum to Pakistan's institutional cooperation with Asean," he said.

Despite the geographical distance, Mr Ahmad said the people-to-people ties are strong and long-standing. Pakistan is home to the Gandhara civilisation which was the cradle of Buddhism dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Gandhara, which means "the fragrant land", covers what is now northwestern Pakistan and a sliver of Afghanistan.

"Taxila is obviously the most famous archaeological site. It is located just an hour's drive from Islamabad. There are many other sites all over the area, including the Buddhist ruin of Takht-e-Bahi [a Unesco World Heritage Site], the reclining Buddha statue in Bhamala, and the Amluk Dara Stupa in Swat," he said.

In addition to pilgrimage sites, Mr Ahmad said Pakistan offers diverse tourist destinations ranging from metropolitan areas of Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore to snow-dusted natural sceneries in the north.

"[You can find] lakes and valleys with snow-clad mountains as the backdrop. The three biggest and highest ranges are the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush, which converge at the point inside Pakistan," he said.

The view from Swat, Kaghan, Kumrat, and Neelum Valleys to the plain of Deosai National Park [known as the land of giants] is also breathtaking, the diplomat said.

While around 5,000 Thais visit Pakistan every year, over 80,000 Pakistanis flock to Thailand. Their favourite destinations include Bangkok and seaside cities, such as Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui.

"Pakistan is just four hours' hop from Thailand, with daily flights to Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. We have done a great deal to facilitate visas, including fast processing at the embassy and visa-on-arrival and e-visa services for Thai citizens," he said.

After taking up the ambassador's post in 2017, Mr Ahmad said he hit the ground learning the Thai language in the hope of deepening his understanding of the country, but the journey has been up and down.

"I am sorry to say I stopped and later realised that I should continue. However, I have a sufficient knowledge of Thai vocabulary. When I listen to people, I can make sense of it and figure out what they say. But it is dangerous because I can misunderstand," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Ahmad said linguistic and cultural differences are not a barrier to seeing through to the heart of a country.

"My family and I have had a wonderful time here. Thailand is a beautiful and welcoming country with lovely people. [However,] I would say there is much more behind the Land of Smiles. There is respect, patience, and tolerance. It has also made tremendous strides in economic development and there is much to learn from that including the late King's Sufficiency Economy Philosophy," he said.

Mr Ahmad said he has a penchant for Thai dishes, especially papaya salad and tom yam kung soup, because they have a spicy taste and unique ingredients.

"Thai food contains a lot of nuts, pineapple and tamarind. [However,] some of them are similar to our dishes, for example, green and red curry."

As the interview came to an end, the ambassador invited this Bangkok Post reporter to get out of his cuisine comfort zone.

"Let's try this home-made gulab jamun [dessert]. It is exclusive to Pakistan and India and is not as sweet as some dishes on the street here.

"Pakistani restaurants also offer staple dishes, like kebabs and roti," he added.

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