The Austrian ambassador, Enno Drofenik, explains why martial arts help him in the art of diplomacy
Glancing at the middle-aged foreigner as he strikes blows and lands kicks on a karate training dummy near the pool in his spacious downtown home, it’s tempting to pass him off as just another Westerner obsessed with kung fu or Thai kick boxing.
Closer scrutiny of the man in the white karate outfit with a black belt around his waist however reveals that Enno Drofenik in no ordinary martial art lover. He spends his days not in the ring or dojo but in the muted calm of an embassy, building nation-to-nation relations and dealing with the highest level of diplomats.
Back home though, the Austrian ambassador to Thailand likes nothing more practising one of the several martial arts in which he has trained whether it’s semi-contact karate, Brazilian capoeira, jiu jitsu, Iranian ikido, kyokushin karate and, of course, muay thai.
Drofenik had his first martial arts lesson in semi karate as an 18-year-old university student. He enjoyed the camaraderie and health benefits of practising martial arts and quickly grew to appreciate the equality that’s inherent to sports.
“No matter what position you hold in life, in sport all that counts is how good you are and how much you practice. Sport is a great equaliser. At some point I became addicted to it and now it feels uncomfortable if I stop practising,” says the 42-year-old envoy with a grin.
He brushes aside the bruises, blood and broken bones that are part and parcel of contact sport. In 10 years of semi-contact karate followed by six years of his pet category, kyokushin karate, Drofenik has broken all his toes and a forearm.
“In fact, a few broken toes and a broken arm are nothing in 15 years. If you play soccer or ice hockey for that long, your injuries will be far worse,” he says.
Unfortunately, the forearm injury came at a bad time, occurring just a few days before his black belt test last June.
“I could have told my trainer that my forearm was broken and he might have given me the black belt without my having to fight. But I couldn’t do that. And of course, if he knew, he would have forbidden me to take the test. So I taped my right arm heavily. The test took seven hours and I was very stressed out. The injury was the least of my concerns. I didn’t even think about my arm even for a second. And everything went well.”
Earning the black belt was particularly important to Drofenik and not just because the suggestion to put himself to the test had come from his Japanese wife, Juri. He also wanted to set an example for his son, six-year-old Taro
“I wanted to show him that if you work hard and are disciplined, you will be able to achieve everything in life. He’s so proud of me and tells his mates at school that his dad has a black belt,” Drofenik laughs.
Every morning after seeing Taro to the school bus Drofenik spends an hour practising karate or taking a muay thai lesson with 10-time Lumpini champion Supachai Somyong. Supachai admits he’s impressed by the ambassador, noting that his kicks and punches are so strong that he was obliged to prepare larger-sized pads for the counter punch.
“When you have a trainer who is a champion, you have to work hard and take things seriously. I’m more laid back when I train alone,” Drofenik says.
Health benefits aside, the ambassador feels that the discipline of martial arts should be applied to daily life. “Like in life, there are no short cuts in martial arts,” he points out.
“You have to work hard or you won’t perform well at the end of the day. If you don’t work hard, you will never be successful. That’s true for everything in life.”
Drofenik says he benefited from the principles of martial arts while serving as part of the Austrian Mission to the United Nations in New York. His work involved negotiating budgets with 190 other countries, most of them much larger than Austria.
“It’s a very intense process. To negotiate, you have to stay engaged; you have to make proposals. With every proposal your opponent rejects – and which he cannot counter in substance – his mind grows weaker and in the end you force him into a corner.
“Likewise in martial arts, you have to keep moving. If you stop moving and go on the defence, you are pushed into the corner and will lose.”
The Austrian envoy, who is also in charge of diplomatic relations with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, took up his position in August. He has observed the political conflicts here from the beginning and is of the opinion that leniency could lead to a solution.
“Coming back to martial arts, If you have problem and cannot talk, then you have to fight. And we all agree that fighting is not good. The most important thing is to have peace.
“With Asean moving into a new phase and a common economic zone in 2015, this power struggle must be overcome soon in order to allow Thailand to fully benefit from its location at the very centre of an integrated Asean economy,” he concludes.