“A Fruitful Cooperation with Germany”: An Interview with H.E. Nongnuth Phetcharatana
Former Thai Ambassador to Germany and Austria, H.E. Nongnuth Phetcharatana has been serving in the Foreign Ministry of Thailand since 1983. Over the past 33 years, she served in several Thai embassies based in Budapest (1989- 1992) and Washington D.C. (1999-2003). She was also the Director-General of the Department of American and South Pacific Affairs for six years (2004-2009). After that, she became an Ambassador in Vienna and later in Berlin (2012-2016). She is currently working in the Devawongse Varoprakarn Institute, institute for training diplomatic officials.
Q: Excellency, could you explain about your current position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
My current position is an ambassador attached to the foreign ministry. I oversee Dewavongse Varoprakarn Institute, which is an academic training institute for Thai diplomats. We provide training courses for all level of foreign service officials starting from recruitment to head of mission and prospective ambassadors. We have to ensure that our diplomats are capable and competent amid the changing world circumstanced and globalized issues. Apart from that, I have been assigned to cover some other issues including representing the foreign ministry to attend international conferences.
Q: Could you tell us about your career and how you became a diplomat?
Oh, that’s a long time ago. I’m going to retire next year (*laughing*). It has been a very long road. My field of study is the political science with a minor in international relations. Although, before being recruited for the foreign ministry, I worked for one year as a reporter at the Bangkok Post newspaper, which was quite challenging and a good starting point for me. Afterwards, I just followed a normal path in this career as I found myself enjoying working in international affairs. Once you are in this field, the first few years will tell you whether you will like it or if you are able to excel on this path.
Diplomats have to adapt and always be up-to-date on current affairs in order to face various challenging situations. In a diplomatic career, you have to travel throughout your career. Moreover, the work tasks also require you to be a hard-working person. For example, if you work for the Thai foreign ministry, particularly as a junior official, you won’t find yourself in a fixed time job like in other government agencies. In contrast, it is sometimes necessary to stay over work hours or also doing a shift during the weekend. Thus, your own private and family time have to be adjusted and may also have to be limited. Those facts can tell you, whether you like the job or not.
I think that only those who really admire this job can stay in this situation, which definitely is the case for me. Once you have arranged yourself with these surrounding conditions, you begin to enjoy and love it. This is also the reason why I rarely think “Oh, I’m so tired”, whenever I face a heavy workload. Therefore, for future students who like to pursue this career, they have to know their own character and whether they like the job of this kind or not.
Q: Does this equally apply to other professions? For example, if you want to become a lawyer, you also have to figure out whether the job suits you or not.
Being a diplomat, you have more chances to meet new people every day. Like when you walk into a social reception, you meet bystanders you never met before. You cannot be there drinking without having a conversation with anybody. You need to have the courage of making friends and getting to know other people. In the meantime, since it is impossible to socialize all the time, you also need to make good conversation and know when it is the right time for it. This is what I call “diplomatic skill”. This skill sometimes can be build up and trained. That is why we established this institute. Once you graduated in international relations, you might have obtained some theoretical knowledge. Nevertheless, diplomatic skills require lots of practical experiences as well as specific training.
Q: What is your most important goal as an ambassador?
I served as an ambassador in two countries, Austria and Germany. In general, an ambassador represents His Majesty the King, the country as well as the Thai people. Our primary goal is to promote the relations with the host countries. If there are countries we have some problems with or facing specific obstacles, we try to find solutions in order to improve the relations. That is why we have to differentiate between the terms of “cooperation” and “relations”. Relation is broad general term. Cooperation is concrete action with instant benefits. Following from this, the cooperation has to go together with a relation, and when we speak about promoting relations, you also have to look at the results.
For example, Germany is well-developed in terms of technology. It is an important trading partner and potential investor for Thailand. Germany is also strong in scientific education, especially in the field of renewable energies. This is an area that Thailand is particularly interested in. Hence, we looked at the good parts here and best practices relevant for both our countries. We tried to promote co-operation in an equal partnership. In fact, we have a high demand for apprenticed and skilled workers, which cannot succeed without training. Thus, we tried to adopt best-practices from Germany into our system in terms of arranging practical learning in Thai vocational schools and vocational colleges.
Moreover, we contacted some German businesses in order to promote partnerships with schools so that internships and the transfer of knowledge can be improved. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promoted this cooperation by allocating budget for Royal Thai Embassy, Berlin to commission German experts and teachers to advise the schools in Thailand. For the past 3-4 years, we have sent 14 experts to more than 10 Thai vocational schools and colleges. We arranged two training courses in Germany for approx. 50 teachers from Thai vocational colleges to learn about Germany’s curriculum for practical learning mainly in engineering and mechatronic. Many Thai vocational colleges started establishing contacts with German or other private companies for internship placement. This is an example of what we call “co-operation” between our two nations.
In the meantime, we can also offer our own experiences regarding the development plan initiated by His Majesty King Bhumibol called the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP), which has been practiced in Thailand for several decades. Despite the fact that it might be relatively unknown to a lot of people outside Thailand, here you can see more than 2,000 royal projects including the successful Crop Substitution Project from the 1960s in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The project came from the King’s initiative aiming to persuade the hill tribe people to grow economic crop plants instead of growing opium. We have worked with GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusamenarbeit) through the framework of UNODC in Vienna in sharing good practices from the Royal Project Foundation and Doitung Development Project with third countries.
Q: What was the hardest challenge in your field of activity?
It is hard for me to figure out which specific task was the hardest one to face. The work that we have done includes both opportunities and challenges. If there are challenges, we just work out solutions. Different tasks have certain points to tackle. But this doesn’t mean I can always achieve a solution. Perhaps, the hardest one is to work in a situation that I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel or trying to make the impossible task possible.
Q: Can you remember the moment of your career which you enjoyed most during your stay in Germany? And how would you describe your collaboration with the German officials?
We had fruitful cooperation with Germany in many areas of mutual interest i.e. vocational education, renewable energy, science and technology, green economy, environment, etc. Germany is known for efficiency, well-organized and hard-working. The German officials are doing a professional job while keeping their promises and therefore are very reliable. These character traits were very helpful for my daily routine and made it much easier for our embassy to plan and operate projects and organize various activities. They are punctual, as we all know, and deliver on time.
What also made me happy was every single moment when I got the chance to organize successful events appealing to and involving a lot of ordinary Germans from all sectors, not only government but also business and society, to promote Thailand and the mutual understanding of both countries and their peoples. Being able to reach the German people and catch their interest of getting to know more about the Thai culture was very special for me. These moments also differ a lot from my daily political and diplomatic work as an ambassador. In the last four years, several Thai cultural and musical performances have been staged in Berlin and several other German cities. They included concerts of Thai youth and professional orchestras, Thai chorus, military symphonic band, and many others. Each show was attended by more than 500 people to watch, listen and enjoy. In my opinion, these moments were very important because the Thai musicians got the chance to prove and illustrate how talented they are. It created a special and magical situation of common feeling and sharing impressions on both sides, Thai and German. It is a win-win activity that promotes people to people understanding. Many Thai musicians and chorus singers performed His Majesty King Bhumibol’s music composition. Very few of the locals, particularly of the younger generation, know that King Bhumibol was a brilliant composer of jazz music. For many years, Thai music experts have transformed those jazz pieces into orchestral work. We were fond of being able to share beautiful oriental music in a Western setting. We called it “The East meets the West”.
A few years ago, we organized two events at Preußen Park in Berlin in the summer. During these moments, there was real interaction between the Thai and German community. The Germans enjoyed the Thai performance and the Thai community, which consists of more than 50,000 people living in Germany, was very proud of that event. For them, it is a great pride of being Thai. In conclusion, bringing together thousands of Germans to events and arouse their interest in Thai culture and Thai music talent made me happy.
Q: How did you find living in Berlin in comparison to the daily life in Bangkok? What did you miss about Thailand when you were in Germany and what did you appreciate about the German culture?
During my stay in Berlin I really missed the atmosphere in Bangkok including my family and friends. The weather in Thailand is pretty hot most of the time, but I missed the climate during the cold and dark winter in Germany. On the other hand, now that I returned to Bangkok, I miss the performance of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I also miss the opportunity of having a nice walk or bike through the parks of Berlin. I really enjoyed the green areas in my neighbourhood in Berlin. Over there, you can always find some place to relax, which is not too far away from your home. In terms of food, I can say that I really miss “Schweinshaxe” from my favourite local restaurant in Berlin.
Q: What advice would you give anybody from Thailand who seeks to work or study in Germany?
I always advise Thai students to consider studying for a bachelor or master degree in Germany. For bachelor degree, students are required to be able to speak German properly, because the subjects are regularly taught in German. It is quite a challenge for them because the German language is difficult to learn for Thai people. Though, I would like to encourage them to try, since there are a lot of cases of successful Thai students who graduated from German universities. I always emphasized the advantages of studying in Germany. For example, Germany is a leading country in sciences, in particular in new technologies, law, economics and social sciences. The cost of living is also affordable in comparison to other Western countries with a similar level of development. Higher education in Germany has been known for quality in almost all universities and Fachhochschule (university of applied sciences). Moreover, a lot of student scholarships are available. Some programs are taught in English as well.
However, Thai students do not know much about opportunities to further their studies for higher education in Germany. Also, I would like to advise the students to make sure they know basic German. This applies irrespective of whether their study courses are taught in English or in German. If they are not already set up, they have to become familiar with the language in order to be able to communicate for daily matters. Even if they do not consider learning German as mandatory for their studies, it is definitely not a waste of time. Instead it is helpful for their future career. It is also a great opportunity for them to learn from German society and adapt such characteristic traits like being well-organized, efficient and well-structured.
Q: Since you mentioned that it is quite hard to get into German education, what improvement could there be for Thai students?
One widespread issue is that Thai students are quite afraid of learning German. The reason for this is that they begin learning it very late. To improve this situation, we are trying to promote teaching German at the secondary level. Several schools provide that already, but we still lack capacities of teachers in German languages. In Germany, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit) has established a program in cooperation with Goethe Institut to provide teachers in German language and train teachers for the schools in other countries. In contrast, a lot of schools in India and China provided German language courses at a young age.
In Thailand, it is still in progress. Although, in Thailand, the number of teachers being trained is still not high enough to meet the demand. There are only a few secondary schools providing German courses. If several schools can provide German courses at that age, students would be confident enough to follow up on the language to university level. Despite the fact that most of the courses are still taught in German, there are some Bachelor’s degree courses that are taught in English. But there are not many and this is not well known among Thai students. Thus, it is a challenge to let them know that there are good chances for them, even if their German skills are not very advanced. Besides, there are some bilingual courses also. Regarding Master and PhD degrees, there are many English-speaking courses provided by a lot of German universities. Many people are not aware of this opportunity.
So this is a task the universities have to face and provide a better flow of information. But, just to let you know that during the past years, 2012 until 2014, we had more than one hundred government-sponsored scholarship students and exchange fellowships from Thailand in Germany. More than fifty percent of them were studying mathematics, sciences, engineering, technology and environment. Some of these students are still studying. Most of these students graduated here at the level of prep school (pre-university). They studied German language for six months here in Thailand at Goethe Institut. They continued to study by having six months intensive German language course in Germany provided by Goethe Institut as well. Finally, the students have to pass an exam to be qualified to apply at a German university. Thereafter, they attend another one-year pre-university program. Once they are admitted, they have another two years to get their first degree. And then, many of them decide to stay and study for Master’s degree or even a PhD. Some German researchers or universities engage them as research fellows.
Q: Regarding career opportunities: What should be considered if someone wanted to work in Germany? How is the cooperation with German colleagues in your experience?
For Thai employees working in Germany, it is important to understand the character and the mentality of Germans. I think this can be learned once arrived at the working place in Germany. It is quite important to know the “dos and don’ts” within the German culture. You know, this is something we tell not only our students but also tourists. It applies for me as a diplomat in the same way: when we stay in a foreign country, we have to understand the local mind-set and culture. For example, when you live in an apartment for rent, you have to follow the house rules. When you live in a house, you have to follow the customs, such as how to take care of your lawn, your trash, your pets and so on. In conclusion, if you want to under- stand the German mind-set, you have to understand the public interest and public behaviour patterns. I am sure many Thais manage to get along very well and all are able to prepare themselves properly.
Thank you very much your Excellency for this interview.
This interview was conducted by CPG legal clerks Daniel Grünewald and Deniz Kuruloglu.