Sitaram Mewati was invited by Govt of China for an international conference on, “Tibet Development Forum” at Lahasa, Tibet. During stopover at Bangkok, he had an opportunity to meet Indian Ambassador to Thailand HE Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi. Before taking up the assignment as Ambassador of India to the Kingdom of Thailand in January 2016, he was Ambassador of India to the United Nations in New York. He has earlier served as Ambassador of India to Ethiopia and the African Union. His other overseas assignments have been Madrid, Manila, Pretoria, New York (Permanent Mission of India to the UN) and Bangkok. In a freewheeling interview, the Ambassador spoke about the Indo-Thai relations and their significance, Excerpts.
Thailand being a is a close neighbour of India, what kind of relation do we maintain?
The bilateral relationship between India and Thailand is substantive and multifaceted. We have had several high level bilateral exchanges which is a testimony to this. Very clearly it is a time-tested relationship in which there are no ups and downs. There is an upward trajectory and, in the natural course itself, one can expect further growth.
What is Look East and Look west policy and what’s its significance to both countries?
Basic aim of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ was to strengthen the process of forging closer and deeper regional integration, through enhancing our ties with South East and East Asia in the spheres of trade and economy, political relations, culture, education, science and technology, defence and security etc. This has led to steady progress in our relations with the countries of South East Asia and the Pacific Region, since the policy was initiated in 1991. Our current government had moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn India’s hitherto ‘Look East Policy’ into an action-driven and result-oriented ‘Act East Policy’. India’s excellent relations with Thailand are an important and integral component of our overall relations with ASEAN and an integral part of the ‘Act East Policy’.
‘Look West policy’ of Thailand is synergistic with our ‘Act East Policy’. It also provides an interface between North-East India and ASEAN. This includes efforts to develop and strengthen connectivity with the ASEAN region through trade, culture and people-to-people contacts. We are looking to develop connectivity in the region such that economic corridors can develop providing seamless movement of goods and services and promoting economic integration and development.
How important is Thailand to India?
The relationship with Thailand is central to our “Act East” policy aimed at enhancing our relationship with ASEAN and other countries to the East of India. We will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Thailand next year. We propose to organize a year-long Festival of India to mark the anniversary and to bring more of India and Indian culture to the people of Thailand. We plan to further strengthen cooperation in all fields, particularly with regard to academic and cultural exchanges. We have some 6,000 Thai students in Indian schools and colleges. We value them greatly as they act as Ambassadors of India after returning to Thailand.
India is a origin of Buddhism, how important is Buddhism to Thai people?
Some scholars say that Buddhism was introduced to Thailand during the reign of Asoka, the great emperor who sent Buddhist missionaries to various parts of the then known world. Others are of the view that Thailand received Buddhism much later. Roughly 95% of the Thai people are practitioners of Theravada Buddhism, the official religion of Thailand. Thai people are very respectful of their Buddhist values. Buddhism in Thailand pervades many aspects of Thai life and senior monks are highly revered and wats (temple) are the heart of social and religious life. While Theravada Buddhism may technically be considered a philosophy rather than a religion Thai Buddhism is infused with many spiritual beliefs which are likely the result of lingering Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier. Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside. India is supportive of Thais visiting the Buddhist circuit which includes Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushi Nagar, Rajgir and Nalanda.
Do Thai language, architecture, arts and any other forms have Indian influence of any kind?
People-to-people links are central to the relationship between Thailand and India. The close cultural and civilizational ties between the two countries are seen in language, arts and architecture. Some parts of southern Thailand, especially Nakhon Si Thammarat, is strongly influenced by Indian art and culture for few centuries. Several ancient artifacts of Shaivism and Vaishanavism from South India can still be found in Nakhon Si Thammarat. Ramayana also known as Ramakien in Thailand is another example. Through the spread of Buddhism, Pali and Sanskrit languages as well as Indian scripts were transmitted into Thailand and many words in present day Thai vocabularies is derived from Pali and Sanskrit with Thai modification. Some Thai art and architecture found in Buddhist temples and stupa have also been influenced by Hinduism, including mural paintings influenced by Ramayana. Indian architectural style can be seen in some Thai stupas.
How important is Thailand for Indian tourists?
Thailand is one of the most important tourist destinations for Indians. Each year about one million tourists visit Thailand from India. The main attraction for the Indian tourists is that they are able to go to a foreign country easily without the hassle of getting a visa as they are able to obtain visa on arrival in this country. There is also very good connectivity between our two countries and there are many options available for travelling by air to Thailand. Nice Beaches and hotels, reasonable places for shopping, good places of entertainment in cities like Pattaya, Phuket, Krabi etc. give Indian people solid reasons to travel to Thailand.
Approximately how many people of Indian origin lives in Thailand, are they enjoying good status?
There are varying estimates about the size of the Indian Diaspora. The number of 200,0000 is often used. The Indian community in Thailand has done very well and is well respected too. This is to some extent because of the philanthropic activities that many individuals and organisations carry out, including in the education sector. The Indian community, while retaining their linkages with India, is also well integrated in Thai society.
How about feelings of Thai minsters about India?
The ministers of Thailand have high regards for India. All the Thai Ministers that I have met have had nothing but the highest praise for the Indian community.
How many small, medium and large Indian businessmen exist in Thailand?
Indian business community is doing very well in Thailand ahas large chunk involved in business. As per data available, there are 40 major Indian companies doing business in Thailand with investments of US $ 38 million.
A Leading hotel Lebua Tower is headed by Indian CEO Deepak Ohri and doing very well, how significant is that for Indians?
It is significant that Indians are well respected in Thailand and are holding commanding positions in various fields. It is a matter of pride for us Indians that Lebua which is a reputed hotel in Bangkok is managed by an Indian.
How the progress of India Thailand bilateral trade is, is it growing in positive manner?
India-Thailand bilateral trade was US$ 7.92 Billion last year (2015). Trade has however gone down slightly since 2014 due to fall in exports from India. Trade balance is however in favour of Thailand with trade deficit being US $ 2.68 million. The Mission is actively trying to increase the bilateral trade, by promoting the Make in India programme.
How important was recent visit of Thai Prime Minister of Thailand General Prayut Chan-O-Cha to India?
His Excellency General Prayut Chan-o-cha visited India from 16-18 June 2016 on a state visit on an invitation from Indian Prime Minister of India. He met Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and held delegation level talks during the visit. He called on the Vice President Shri M Hamid Ansari. General Prayut was accompanied by a high-level delegation including Deputy Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, senior officials and business leaders. It was his first visit to India after becoming Prime Minster of Thailand. Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj also called on the Thai PM.
Besides meeting Indian PM what was his other agenda in India?
General Prayut delivered a speech at a business event hosted by FICCI/CII/ASSOCHAM. The India Thailand Joint Business Forum held their first meeting during the visit and conveyed their recommendations to both Prime Ministers. After the visit to New Delhi, General Prayut visited Bodhgaya on 18 June before departing for Thailand. The visit of General Prayut helped to maintain the momentum of high level bilateral exchanges and provided a major fillip to India-Thailand relations.