Thailand’s participation in JNU’s International Conference “India & Southeast Asia: One Indic Belt, Shared Culture & Common Destiny”

Royal Thai Embassy, New Delhi participated in the International Conference on Shared Culture and Common Destiny of Southeast Asia and India at JNU.

During 26-28 April 2018, a 3-day International Conference “India & Southeast Asia: One Indic Belt, Shared Culture & Common Destiny” was organised by the Centre for Chinese & Southeast Asian Studies, the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies (SLL&CS) of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in collaboration with Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), Erasmus Program of the European Union, NHPC Limited, and the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in New Delhi, and in consultation with many Indonesian universities, namely, the State University of Yogyakarta, Indraprastha State University (Jakarta), Muhammadiah University (Malang), Udayana University (Denpasar) and Haluoleo University of Kendari, Indonesia.

The Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi as well as other embassies and high commissions of the ASEAN countries in New Delhi were invited to participate in the Conference. From the Royal Thai Embassy, Mr. Apirat Sugondhabhirom, Minister and DCM, represented the Embassy in one of the 16 panels of the Conference. His presentation is as follows:

A welcoming ceremony for Minister Apirat Sugondhabhirom and other panelists

Presentation of Mr. Apirat Sugondhabhirom, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission, Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi, to the International Conference “India & Southeast Asia: One Indic Belt, Shared Culture & Common Destiny” (Esteemed Panel-2 “Soft Power: India and Southeast Asia” on 27 April 2018 at Jawaharlal Nehru University Convention Centre)

 Excellencies, Esteemed professors and academicians, students,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Namaskar, and for our Indonesian friends in the room, Selamat Pagi,

At the outset, in the name of His Excellency Ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi, Ambassador of Thailand to India, it is an honour and a privilege for me to convey his greeting and the good wish of the Royal Thai Embassy in New Delhi to this academic gathering. I take note of Dr. Gautam Jha’s remarks earlier that this may be the beginning of the academic collaboration between the Embassy and the JNU in the near future.

I am glad to be able to offer a few words on Indo-Thai relations at this great time in our common history. As some of you may know, last year (2017) we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic relations. Thailand was among the first countries to recognise the then young Republic of India since her inception. So this year is the beginning of the eighth decade of our bilateral formal ties. It is also a great joy that this important moment in our mutual history came at a time when the outlook for our two countries’ friendship is brighter than ever.

On the topic of discussion under the current panel, when we talk about the so-called “Soft Power” (which is one of the most important aspects of modern diplomacy) I would like to think that nowadays diplomacy is not limited only to the inter-state or inter-governmental relationship. The most basic foundation of international relations is the people-to-people contacts and bonds; as well as to the popular understanding – or perception – or, simply put, how people view other nations. And here the soft power has a very significant role to play which can shape governments’ foreign policy in a major way.

In the Thai-Indian context, we have a very strong base to work on. Generally, we view each other in a very positive light, which makes my life at the Royal Thai Embassy a lot easier!

Probably those of us in this room from the academic circles do know that, our two countries, India and Thailand, have common civilisational, historical and cultural roots and heritages that reach back much beyond our 70 years of diplomatic relations, which is – after all – only the formal relationship between modern nation-states in the modern time. Long, long before that, both our countries, and both our peoples, have been shaped and remain linked by the great forces of history and culture that span thousands of years. My Ambassador always says to our Thai guests that a visit to the National Museum in New Delhi will only confirm this. On the other hand, I would like to invite you all to visit Thailand, and see for yourself how much we have enjoyed and learned from different aspects of ancient Indian civilisations over the centuries – from Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy that have shaped the mentality of the Thais, to the Brahmin rituals at the Royal Court, to people’s names (including my own) and the names of the days of the weeks and months in Thai calendar, to the linguistic and literature linkages including the Ramayana epics – to the way we prepare Thai food which might remind you of the Tamil and south Indian cuisines. The list is endless.   

 In modern era, that bilateral bonds remain ever close. The assumption of duty of His Excellency Ram Nath Govind, the second Dalit President of the Republic, reminds me of India’s first Dalit Rashtrapati – H.E. K.R. Narayanan, the 10th President of India, who served as Indian Ambassador to Thailand during 1967-1969. When we lost His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 and the then President Pranab Mukherjee sent a condolence letter to the new and current King, His Majesty replied that he still fondly remembered his three visits he made to India when he was the Crown Prince. In late 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his way to Tokyo, specifically made a brief stopover in Bangkok and paid his respects to the late King Bhumibol, which touched the hearts and souls of the Thai people. I have the privilege of welcoming regular visits of many members of the Thai royal family to India. H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, younger sister of the King, already visited India 18 times, to almost every state of the republic. She is a Sanskrit scholar, recipient of the Padma Bhushan and the World Sanskrit Award, and obviously, a friend of India.

 My Ambassador is fond of saying that we have a very solid historical and cultural foundation to nurture our friendship, but still we need to work to change the ways Indians see Thailand and the way Thai people see India, to expand our cooperation even further and utilize the vast untapped potentials. When thinking of Thailand, normally our Indian friends would think of a historical and cultural bond, of Buddhism, of the Ramayana, good place for tourism and shopping, and good food – which are all very positive, but not all Thailand has to offer! And India in our people’s perception is also more or less still limited to Bodh Gaya, Buddhism, Bollywood, and perhaps the images from the movies like “Slumdog Millionaire” – which is not all India has to offer either! But this is beginning to change. Each year about 1.5 million Indians and Thais visited the other countries. Booming tourism and exchanges of royal and high profile visits are helping to transform the modern Thai person’s perspective on the new India, and vice versa.

 Both our countries are currently undergoing comprehensive reforms. We have monitored with much interest India’s progress towards the vision of New India 2022. Both India and Thailand are pursuing sustainable, and inclusive, economic growth, for the benefit of our peoples. Based on initiatives such as Make in India and Thailand 4.0, as well as our Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiative – a living legacy from His Late Majesty King Bhumibol, I believe we can share our best practices and reform experiences. Indeed, we can complement each other for a win-win partnership.

 On the political side, relations are warm and friendly. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited India in 2016 and again in January this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations. An open-ended invitation has been extended to Indian Prime Minister Modi to visit Thailand. Military and security relations are constructive and mutually beneficial, covering the sea, land, and air dimensions. We have also found a common challenge in the fight against terrorism, narcotics and transnational organised crime. As an emerging power, India has a valuable role to play, together with other regional powers, in ASEAN and in the greater Indo-Pacific.

 In the economic sphere, the ASEAN community of 625 million people is on the rise and is a worthy counterpart for the Indian market of 1.2 billion people. Thailand is working hard with India to link these two markets through India’s Northeastern region (NER) and Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao PDR. However, beyond the much awaited India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, other modes of connectivity, particularly maritime and air, should also be utilised to their maximum potentials. Political will on all sides will also ensure delivery of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and BIMSTEC FTAs to give an added economic boost to ASEAN, South Asia, and beyond. Beginning this July, Thailand will be the ASEAN-India coordinator for the term of three years. Thailand is also the current co-chair, with India, of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation framework (MGC). As a BIMSTEC founder (like India) Thailand is eager to continue to work with India and other members of the BIMSTEC for the common growth of the Bay of Bengal region and beyond. There are so much potentials we should continue to work together, for our common future.

 All this is not to deny the significance of the strong foundation of the historical, civilisational and cultural ties, especially at the people to people level – the “Soft Power” in the topic. This morning I read the report in Indian newspaper about the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s about-turn in their public relations work, from bombarding India during the confrontation at Doklam, to quoting Rabindranath Tagore on Sino-Indian friendship and brotherhood. This is the very first time in many years, I think, that the PLA’s media apparatus has ever quoted the Gurudev Tagore, and it happened on the eve of the informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, in which, of course, we all are very much interested. My point is that this, yet again, shows that soft power can be very potent. Tagore’s legacy still carries a very powerful, and very symbolic, positive message for the current Sino-Indian relationship even today.

We can humbly boast too, that 90 years ago the Gurudevji also visited Thailand, or Siam, as my country was called then. Last year is also the 90th anniversary of his visit to Siam, which happened during 8-16 October 1927.  On the same journey to Siam, the Gurudevji also visited Singapore, Malaya, and of course Batavia in Indonesia. He had also visited Burma and Vietnam. So Tagore was no stranger to Southeast Asia at all.

I am pleased to report here that my country, Siam, had impressed the great poet with its history, culture, and its close ties with Indian civilisations of yore, especially its embrace of Buddhism, so much so to the point that he had composed two poems dedicated to Siam. One is titled “To Siam”, and the other “Farewell to Siam”.

 Ladies and Gentlemen,

Now please allow me to recite one of the poems, with which the Gurudevji had everlastingly honoured our country.

To Siam

When the great prayer of the Three Refuges

rang from sky to sky across deserts and hills and distant shores,

the awakened countries poured their rejoicings

in great deeds, and noble temples,

in the rapture of self-dedication

in mighty words,

in the breaking of the bond of self.

At an unheeded, unconscious moment,

that prayer, wafted by some wandering breeze,

touched thy heart, O Siam, lived in thy life

and shaded it with a branching wealth of well-being.

A centre to thy revolving centuries,

an end to thy endeavours, which is Freedom of Spirit –

it helped to bind thy people in a common bond of hope,

to strengthen them with the power of a single-pointed devotion

to one Dharma, one Sangha and one immortal Teacher.

Let these words, potent with an inexhaustible creative urge,

ever direct thee to the adventures of new ages,

light up new truths with their own radiant meaning,

and in one single garland string all the gems of knowledge newly gathered.

I come today to the living temple that is one with thee,

to the altar of united hearts

in which is seated on His lotus seat Lord Buddha,

whose silence is peace, whose voice consolation.

I come from a land where the Master’s words

lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust,

where oblivious ages of the pillared stones,

the records of a triumphant devotion.

I come, a pilgrim, at thy gate, O Siam,

to offer my verse to the endless glory of India

sheltered in thy home, away from her own deserted shrine,

to bathe in the living stream that flows in thy heart,

whose water descends from the snowy height of a sacred time

on which arose, from the deep of my country’s being,

the Sun of Love and Righteousness.”

When His Majesty King Prajadhipok, or Rama VII of Siam, graciously granted Tagore an audience on 13 October 1927 at Dusit Palace in Bangkok, this poem was read in the royal presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Siam, before the gathering of princes and ministers of the royal court. 

Thus, my friends, was how, almost a century ago, Thailand was given an everlasting accolade by the Gurudev of India, for which we are most grateful.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Some observations here.  First, it is clear that the Gurudevji must have felt then that Buddhism had sadly been all but forgotten in the land of its origin, so he was delighted and impressed to find the presence of Indian civilizational heritage, especially Buddhism, still well preserved (and cherished) across the Indian Ocean, in Siam.  This was of course the time before the earnest revival of Buddhism in India, such as the movement led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Father of the Indian Constitution, in the 1950s, and the establishment of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee under the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949, which stipulates that ambassadors from eight Buddhist countries, including Thailand, be members of the Committee’s Advisory Board.

Rabindranath Tagore would probably be pleased if he knew that, in 1956 the independent Republic of India hosted a grand celebration of “Buddha Jayanti” to mark 2,500 years of Buddhism, and on this occasion India invited various foreign governments and the international Buddhist community to build their temples in Bodh Gaya.  The Royal Thai Government was the first government to respond to such invitation, and a Thai temple, modelled after Wat Benchamabopitr or the Marble Temple in Bangkok where Tagore had also visited, still stands in Bodh Gaya unto this day.  Tagore would probably be pleased too to note that, ninety years after his visit to Siam, President Govind, the current President of India himself, made a reference to Lord Buddha in his speech when he was sworn in as President last July, and also in his first Independence Day speech last August.  No longer would “the Master’s words lie dumb, in desultory ruins, in the desolate dust…” in modern day India.

Secondly, Tagore understood quite well that the word “Thai”, the name of the Thai nation, which later became the official name of my country, the Kingdom of Thailand, actually means “free”.  The Thai people are proud of their freedom and independence, and the Gurudev actually mentioned this free spirit in his poem, “To Siam”, and also suggested that this quest for freedom of our people has been guided over the centuries by the liberating tenets of Lord Buddha.

It is also remarkable that, twenty years before the Independence of India, the poet whose poem was to become the national anthem of the new republic, would mention both the spirit behind the name of Thailand and the “…pillared stones: the records of a triumphant devotion…” – that is, Emperor Ashoka’s Lion Capital of Sarnath, later to be adopted as State Emblem of India, in the very same poem!

Third, in his farewell message, Rabindranath Tagore again stressed the common cultural heritage Thailand shared with India, from thousands of years ago.  He spoke of “a primaeval friendship”, “the golden memory of an ancient love”, and “immemorial kinship” between us, which had touched and moved him.  In his farewell letter to H.R.H. Prince Dhani Niwat, then Minister of Education of Siam and one of his main hosts in Thailand, the Gurudevji said, “I shall always cherish the memory of my most pleasant stay… I must say I have been greatly impressed by the warm hospitality accorded me by the Thai people as a whole.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, and friends,

To conclude my presentation today, may I refer to Rabindranath Tagore’s ideals of humanistic internationalism that transcends national boundaries, a concept he used to call “Maitri.”  I am myself a diplomat by profession, and it has often been said that diplomacy is all about protecting one’s own national interests, which is quite true at one level.  But then again, at another, higher level, or deeper level, a diplomat should also work for peace and mutual understanding between peoples. 

As a diplomat, a Buddhist, and a friend of India, I salute the great Indian poet who used his poems and his love to bridge different peoples and nations, to unify humanity into one harmonious universal family, and I thank him for his “Maitri” towards Siam and her people, as well as his gifts of the poems that he had left us, in his own words, “crowned with a garland from me, whose ever fresh flowers had blossomed ages ago”.

This is one strong Soft Power link between India and Southeast Asia. Thank you very much for your kind indulgence.

DCM Apirat Sugondhabhirom delivering his presentation

Performances from India and Indonesia