By Alexander Karchava
Special to The Nation
My entire professional life has been tied up with Thailand, ever since my first visit in 1973. But I first set out to explore the Kingdom much earlier, in 1966, when I joined the Institute of Oriental Languages at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, to study Thai. Knowledge of the language has connected me with Thailand for the past 51 years.
A period of 120 years has a special meaning in Buddhist Thailand, where it constitutes completion of 10 cycles.
People here in Colombo often express surprise when I speak of this anniversary. They ask how it is possible that Russia has 60 years of diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka, nearly 70 with India and other Asian countries, and yet almost twice as much with Thailand.
I have to reveal to them that Thailand (then Siam) has never been a colony, so 120 years ago diplomatic links were established with independent Siam, which unlike its regional neighbours was a sovereign state. Curious, some are keen to know how Thailand kept its independence. The answer brings the surprising discovery that Russia played a role.
In 1897, the Siamese people were renowned for their distinctive character, marked by amiability and tolerance embodied by the Thai smile. However, I would like to focus on another talent of Thai people, which I can evaluate having dedicated 46 years to the foreign service. That talent is the gift for diplomacy – and the great King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) possessed it to the full extent.
For Russia to offer its support, Siam had to make the first move and ask for assistance. In those days of political solitaire, Siam was faced with a crucial choice: which world power should it address? The exceptional diplomatic instincts of King Rama V identified Russia as the power that would best aid Siam’s quest for sovereignty. It proved a wise choice.
I later witnessed other tangible and significant diplomatic achievements when, in 1973, I arrived in Bangkok a year after violent tragedy struck at the Munich Olympic Games. Terrorists took the Israeli team hostage, triggering a siege that led to a bloodbath for civilians, police and the terrorists themselves when German authorities intervened with force. When the same terrorist organisation seized the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, there was a risk of a repeat scenario for Thailand. However, the Thai authorities managed to end the siege without loss of life. I remember clearly when deputy prime minister Air Chief Marshal Thavi Chulasab arrived at the besieged embassy and offered himself in exchange for the Israeli diplomats. The eventual success of his diplomatic mission was down to determination, earnestness and the readiness to risk “soft” power rather than solving the crisis with weaponry.
In 1982 I arrived in Thailand for my second posting. That year the whole nation was celebrating the 55th birthday of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In my opinion, the best gift the King received was the end to a long and difficult fight with insurgents waging war against governmental forces. Thanks to the laborious and often risky work with the insurgents, education efforts in the countryside and remote villages, Bangkok managed to answer the challenge.
The massive outflow of people brainwashed by vulgar communist ideology returned from their rural battle, laid down arms and joined regular society. It was the end of the communist insurgency in Thailand. For comparison, the guerrilla war in neighbouring Malaysia was halted only after a bloody war that claimed many lives. Once again Thailand succeeded diplomatically where others could not manage even with military force. Thais’ intrinsic fascinating politeness, amicability and sincere generosity were essential to the success.
I congratulate my friends in Thailand and all Thais on this glorious occasion in bilateral relations. I hope and trust that both nations will continue to cooperate in the spirit of genuine friendship established 120 years ago and maintained in the international arena.
Alexander Karchava is an expert on Thai affairs who is currently serving as Russia’s ambassador to Sri Lanka.