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Our man in Beijing
Wiboon Khusakul, Thailand's ambassador to the People's Republic of China, talks about his love for the Chinese language and how he uses his skill to promote his homelandOver the years, the kingdom has welcomed many Chinese envoys able to speak Thai like the Thais and now Thailand is returning the compliment, with its ambassador to China not just well-versed in Chinese but speaking it with a fluency that has fooled many into mistaking him for a senior Chinese government official.
Wiboon Khusakul, who's been our man in Beijing since 2011, started speaking Chinese when he was a child and went on to pursue his love for the language while studying international relations at Chulalongkorn then Thammasat universities.
"When I was young, I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to use the language in my career. But I loved the language so much that I chose to continue learning it," says Wiboon, who earned his second master degree, this one in International Public Policy, from Johns Hopkins while posted to Thai Embassy in Washington DC.
His language skills proved useful when he decided to make his career in the diplomatic service. His first assignment overseas was as second secretary to the Thai Embassy in Beijing in 1983. After several other postings, including Washington DC, in 2000, he was appointed Thai consul general for Kunming and two years later, for Shanghai. In 2003, he became ambassador to Iraq and eight years later, returned to Beijing.
Bilateral trade and investment is expected to reach US$100 billion in 2015, a sharp increase over the US$69.7 billion recorded last year. Wiboon says a vast country like China is an ideal market for Thailand's trade and investment and can be expected to grow following the announcement of newly elected president Xi Jinping's support for boosting international trade. Thailand's investment in China is currently more than US$6 billion.
In addition to regularly granting media interviews, the envoy has appeared on many local television programmes where he uses his language skills to give viewers a better understanding of Thailand. The aim is to lure them to Thailand and enhance cooperation in all sectors.
"I plan to use what I call 'soft power', which is essentially Thai culture and the beauty of our country, to encourage more Chinese to Thailand. This will help boost our tourism sector."
He also considers as "soft power", the recent hit Chinese comedy "Lost in Thailand," which focuses on two Chinese businessmen searching for their boss in Thailand.
Shot mostly in Chiang Mai, the film has earned more than one billion yuan, the first Chinese film to do so. It has also resulted in a major influx of Chinese tourists to the kingdom since hitting the screens in December, with many travel companies jumping on the bandwagon and organising special trips that follow the movie's trail.
While Wiboon is grateful to the film for boosting tourism, he says it only shows a very small measure of what Thailand is all about.
"Most of the film was shot in Chiang Mai so didn't portray other parts of our beautiful country. Nor did it reflect the Thai people's hospitality, for which the country is known around the world," he says.
"So, when I was invited to speak on TV, I told viewers in their own language that they should visit Thailand. I mentioned that were many aspects, particularly our hospitality, that the movie failed to display and they would enjoy these only by visiting Thailand."
Last December, China's then Vice President Xi visited Thailand as an official guest of the government. When he returned to Beijing and Wiboon asked him about the reception during his stay, Xi said he gave it 120 out of 100 marks.
Wiboon says Xi's high score for Thai hospitality confirms his statement that first-hand experience is essential for Chinese people who want to know Thailand better.
But while Thailand does have a lot to offer tourists, less-than-scrupulous traders can leave a bad taste in the visitor's mouth and Wiboon acknowledges that the embassy does receive some complaints about cheating through Weibo (the Chinese Twitter) from Chinese tourists returning from Thailand. He adds that the number of grumbles is small and that the embassy helps contact the relevant authorities to solve the problems. He personally telephones complainants to update them on the latest situation. "They are happy about our quick response to their complaints" he says.
"My ability to communicate in Chinese has helped me a lot in my diplomatic duties here. It assists me in understanding the peoples' lifestyles and thoughts, which is vital to boosting cooperation," he says.
Wiboon is however disappointed at the large number of Thai students who sign up to study Chinese, still the second most popular language after English, but opt out of courses after only a short time,
"I really hope that Thais will learn Chinese language to the degree that they can communicate with native speakers. China is a huge country and has many job opportunity; those who could speak Chinese will surely benefit from that."