Interview with H.E. Kristi Westphalen, former Ambassador of Finland to the Kingdom of Thailand
Finnish Ambassador Kristi Westphalen came to Thailand at a period of great uncertainty. It was before her arrival and under her predecessor that the offices of the Finnish Embassy had to be evacuated as the 2010 protests on Bangkok’s streets reached a tipping point outside Central World in the Ratchaprasong area. The embassy’s offices have since moved south to Ploen Chit and whilst things have been calmer than in 2010, Thailand has remained on unsteady grounds. Ambassador Westphalen looks back at her three years as Finland’s chief representative in Thailand after having finished her term. Her credo? Expect the unexpected!
How long have you been in Thailand and what was your position prior to this post?
My term as Finnish Ambassador to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos (until last year) is coming to a close in about two weeks’ time. By then, I will have been here for three years. Prior to that, I was Consul General of Finland in Los Angeles for five years. Time to go home.
When you first heard that you will be going to Southeast Asia, what were your thoughts and what did you expect? Did you know the region in general and Thailand in particular well?
I was not familiar with Southeast Asia and my knowledge of Asia was limited to some time I spent as a very young diplomat in China some thirty years ago. That China of course does no longer exist. So when I first got here, I started reading and I am still doing that to this day. I focused on books about social dynamics, society and history. Both my husband and I have had a truly wonderful learning experience.
How do your expectations from back then and your experiences over last three years compare?
Two of my predecessors gave me some advice when I first came here. It was ‘expect the unexpected’ and that is truly what has happened. I came in September 2013, large scale demonstrations across Bangkok started in November 2013. The country has been in political turmoil in one way or another ever since then.
Have you noticed a change in the working environment between what you had experienced prior to May 2014 and after?
Yes, there has been a tremendous difference in the sense that after the military coup the European Union decided that we will restrict our relations and interactions with the Thai government until a democratically elected government is back in place. It feels as if one of your hands is tied behind your back and we do hope that we can quickly return to a time where normal relations can be resumed.
Do you feel that European Union has maybe overreacted? Some observers seem to think the European response was somewhat harsher than for instance the U.S. American response to the coup. The suspension of a EU – Thailand Free Trade Agreement for instance must make your life as a European diplomat more difficult?
No, I do not think that is the case. If we look at an op-ed article for instance that came out about a month ago by the EU, US and Canada, we do see that we share the same concerns. It is not up to me to judge US policies on the matter and many Western governments that are represented here do share the same concerns as the EU. The EU had to make some very difficult choices and the outcome is one negotiated internally among all 28 members of the European Union. We have followed the same line ever since the military took power. It is important the we do not cut relations and that a continuous dialog remains in place where both sides can voice their point of view.
During your time here, what were your main diplomatic goals and areas of focus?
Being in such a dynamic region, at the heart of ASEAN, furthering economic ties is one basic job for any ambassador here. It turned out that this was a major focus of our work whereas the political side of things has been somewhat slower. Whilst we did not need to prepare ministerial meetings as they simply did not take place, we have only two diplomats covering four countries. Being a fairly small embassy, typical embassy services take up a lot of resources and time. The area that has been most fruitful and productive has been promoting Finnish education in particular and our efforts in the education sector in general. We now have a number of projects, for example with the BMA (Bangkok Metropolitan Administration) and major universities where I have been able to recruit extra personnel to work on these growing projects. That has been very rewarding and we have been able to touch on important issues such as equality, participation, transparency, critical thinking wearing an ‘education hat’ which maybe would have not been possible wearing a ‘democracy hat’. In future, freedom of expression and things like press freedom will also become a key issues.
What other organisations and partners did you work particularly close with?
Scandinavian countries, four of which are present here, have traditionally strong ties to one another. Our societies are built in a similar manner so we think alike, which makes it very easy to work together. My colleagues from these embassies have been simply wonderful. A few months ago, we had a joint event with the Danish Embassy on ‘Happiness’. We looked at the structures of Nordic societies and how they assure that people look into the future with more confidence. We have had a lot of interest and a successful event with many Thai participants.
‘Happiness’ is a special word in Thai politics these days, I suppose you were referring to Happiness Indices and the like rather than the NCPO?
Yes of course, and the event did actually get flagged by the Thai government because of that but it was a very different take on happiness and we had a good, memorable event. There was no end to questions by the participants who showed a genuine interest and it was good to see many young people asking questions which is not always the case, particularly among university students.
Events being flagged, participants filmed…do you fear for the public space in Thailand?
Yes, and I do not think that these perimeters are going to change in the near future. Freedom of expression and press freedom are things that will come up during the upcoming drafting of the organic laws too. I am afraid that public space may become more restricted which is a very unfortunate development.
How do you view the diplomatic community here in Bangkok in general? Are you sad to leave?
Yes, it is a very vibrant community and my husband and I have made some wonderful friends, some of which are leaving at the time as we do actually. It is sad to leave friends but that is the nature of the diplomatic business. But let me tell you, you leave and life goes on. I saw on my friend’s Facebook recently – she had left to go back home to Canada – and she posted ‘Two days into retirement – everything ok still’. So you see, life goes and you get to keep the friends you made along the way.
What other things about Thailand will you miss?
Come the dark and cold Northern European winter, we will look back with great fondness on Thailand and all the beautiful places we have visited. I do not do particularly well with the heat frankly, but come November, December in Finland I am sure I will change my mind.
What was your favourite pastime when you were not working?
My husband and I love walking along the beach somewhere in Hua Hin.
What other places in Thailand have you visited?
We have seen many great places during our time here across all the four countries I was responsible for, having events all across the region. There are so many places we have not gotten to however. I have been here a fairly long time now but there are so many more places we want to spend time at – we will return as tourists. What has given me the most pleasure is visiting universities across the country, speaking there and meeting professors and students. We spoke freely, exchanged ideas and so on. This has been the most rewarding part for me which I truly enjoyed.
If you have some time off, maybe half a day, what do you do?
I enjoy the swimming pool and the Finnish sauna in my house. It is wonderful!
There is a sauna in your house? Was that an addition you brought to the house or has it always been there?
Let me tell you, every single Finn in Finland and all ambassadors abroad have a sauna. It is a Finnish civil right to have one! My house is close to On Nut, it is a beautiful place with a nice garden, pool and sauna.
If you had a completely free hand in choosing where to go next, where would you go?
I am very happy to go back to Finland. I have been abroad for 8 years now and I want to rediscover my own country. Things change and I am very happy I will be able to spend some time in my home country and with my family. After a few years of that, I will be ready to go somewhere else again.
What words of advice will you give you successor?
The same I was given when I first started – expect the unexpected. My immediate predecessor was evacuated along with all the embassy staff from our Central World offices in 2010 and everyone had to work from the residence for about 6 weeks. So I was well acquainted with the possible turmoil, although I did not expect things to go so quickly when I arrived in September 2013. You cannot predict what is going to happen but be as well prepared as possible and know your country.
Thank you very much, Excellency, for this interview.
The interview was conducted by Jan Kliem, Program Officer at CPG