What were your thoughts when you were first heard you were being posted to Thailand?
“In my career I have always followed the course of the sun, I have always gone west. So you can imagine my joy at learning that for the first time in my life I was being sent east to Asia, a continent I had no knowledge about, not even as a tourist. When I was posted to Thailand I was challenged by the utter novelty of my function, and with the opportunity of becoming acquainted with certain political, economic and cultural realities, which up until that time had been unknown to me.
“So I have taken this as a great opportunity to complete my experience and education because as diplomats we continue to learn up until the last day of our careers. I also saw this as an opportunity to prove myself, and my capabilities, in entirely new areas with new problems, new people, a new language, a new set of political realities and a new set of economic issues.”
One would think that for a posting in Asia you would need more experience in the region?
“Most Italian diplomats are hired as generalists and are expected to perform as generalists. There are a few exceptions, where people create a great in-depth expertise for themselves and this obliges them to follow a certain circuit. But this is not true for most of us; so, as a result, my career has seen me perform roles ranging from consular services to economic, political, cultural, military and human rights functions.
“This system challenges each and every one of us to be on our toes throughout our careers because we are always being asked to acquire new capabilities and to be able to handle and manage different conditions and different situations.”
But this must be very tough for you?
“Remember, I was called upon to build on a basis that was already existing. And diplomats are proud of their ability to quickly master different political environments whether they are posted to Chile, Russia or Thailand. We come in, and we learn quickly, usually with the help of some background reading and with the help of those who have been here before us. It’s easier with postings, which tend to get more news coverage.
“The economic set of issues takes a little more time. There’s less theory and you must become acquainted with the personalities, the institutions and the way business is conducted so you can best work on bilateral relationships in trade and investment.”
“In Thailand, the first recorded Italian presence was in the 1700s with the arrival of two Jesuit missionaries. One of them, Father Valguarnera designed the walls of the old fortress of Ayuttaya. We can retrace the steps of Italian missionaries in the region to the early 1500s, mostly doing work in China and Japan.
“Italy was never a colonial power in Asia, and our diplomatic relations with Thailand are 130 years old. Despite our cultural differences, they have been constant and very cordial. We have been familiar with Thai realities since the travels of King Rama V to Europe and Italy, and many Thais have been aware of Italy for a long time as well: tourism, study and business being the main conduits.”
What’s been Italy’s greatest influence on Thailand so far?
“Probably, the most meaningful period of Italian presence came during the reign of King Rama V, when during his visits to Rome, Venice, Florence, he had the vision to hire a whole body of artists, artisans, painters and engineers to modernize the capital of Siam.
“So, from the end of the nineteenth century onwards there was a tremendous influence of Italian architecture on Thai buildings. Everywhere you look, whether it is the State Buildings, Houses of Parliament, the main train station or artifacts at the Grand Palace, you will notice the Italian influence in their design, construction and decoration.”
“Every Ambassador works at improving bilateral relations wherever possible. But, as I said, I didn’t come here to improvise; I’m working on a basis that has been laid down for a number of decades.
“I will try and increase the number of political visits as well as the number of cultural exchanges including increasing the number of scholarship programs to allow more Thai students to study in Italy.
“My main emphasis though is to work on our economic relationship because this is an area where a greater expansion is warranted. With Italian companies we help them find a Thai partner, or agent, and we help them register their company as well as understand the way business is done here. Most of all, we inform them of the opportunities this market may offer.
“In 2001, our bilateral trade increased by thirty-one percent, totaling about US$1.3 billion. This indicates two things: one, Thailand is recovering from the economic crisis; two, there continues to be a keen interest in Italian goods, particularly industrial machinery and consumer products.
“Thailand has traditionally had a surplus in its trade with Italy, but lately it has diminished somewhat and today our import-export ratio has become substantially balanced.''
“Air-conditioners, electronic components, gold, jewelry, frozen and fresh seafood and textiles. Textiles were number one for years but no longer and the products today are providing much more added value.”
Can you provide a couple of examples of how Italy can help the Thais with technology transfer?
“They are into companies manufacturing optical materials as well as jewelry, plastics, packaging, refrigeration, motorcycle assembly and lately car-assembly and food processing as well. In addition, you also see a strong and growing projection of the Italian image and lifestyle in the growing number of Italian restaurants in Thailand. Italian cuisine is very popular with the Thai people.”
“The Italian industrial machinery that comes here must correspond to Thai needs, the availability of raw materials and the technical capabilities of the Thai personnel. This is particularly true in the area of textiles and woodworking. And with the booming tourism business, Thais need refrigeration plants for supermarkets and hotels, which we can also supply.”
What similarities are there between Italians and Thais?
“Fiat Auto is set to manufacture the first Alfa Romeo outside of Italy at the GM plant in Rayong. It will manufacture the Alfa Romeo 156, a very successful model. FIAT used to be a very popular brand in this region in the 70s and the 80s. We are confident it can make a comeback.”
What about your relations with Laos and Cambodia?
“With all the differences in religion and culture I am surprised at the similarity between the Thai and Italian people. We share a love for beautiful things and a love for creating them. We are both very sociable people and love parties, music and festivals of all kinds.”
“Our relations are maintained at a rather streamlined level because without a resident embassy it’s hard to keep up with day-by-day business and promotion. Like my predecessors, I try and travel as much as I can. I was in Cambodia in February and Laos in November and I try to maintain as many contacts as possible. I will return to both countries in the next few weeks.
“Since our economic relationship with both countries is not very substantial, we have focused on development assistance, and as such we recently doubled our assistance to Cambodia. When I recently met with the Cambodian Foreign Minister, I told him that while Italy is far away we are not an absent country. In Laos, working through multilateral channels, we have established a series of small programs supported by our financing. I would like to think that’s just the beginning of more things to come.”
“As I said, we would like to do more, but we must bear in mind that my country has to focus its efforts in our own region where, alas, we do not lack crises either. So, most of our aid goes to places like the Balkans, the Middle East and Northern Africa.”
How has the introduction of the euro been received?
“Well, this obviously happened when I was not in Italy, but I read about it extensively. I didn’t hear many expressions of regret at the demise of the lira, although I harbor a small one myself as I was born and raised with the lira. But you must look forward and the benefits of the euro are undeniable.”
“I haven’t been to as many places as l would like, but wherever I go I seem to be surrounded by my fellow countrymen, whether it is Phuket or Chiang Mai. It’s really quite amazing because I know the Germans and the Brits have more tourists here, but everywhere I go I see Italian tourists. And I am sure that this is good for our mutual knowledge and for the bilateral relationship with Thailand overall.”
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