By; Elite+ Editorial Team
HE Mrs Evren Dağdelen Akgün has served as the Turkish Ambassador to Thailand since February 2017 and as these assignments are usually four years. As busy as she is, she still sacrificed some of her time to share her thoughts and experiences.
Can you tell us something about yourself?
I was born in Ankara and grew up in İstanbul. I decided that I wanted to represent the country I love at an early age. I designed my studies to achieve this goal. After completing my graduate studies, I joined the Foreign Ministry in 1993.
Throughout my diplomatic journey, I found out that while representing my country, I also took a part with me from the host country where I served. In every new country you are assigned to, you meet local people of many different professions and backgrounds and make wonderful friends. Within every different culture, your horizons expand each day with new experiences. And no matter how junior or senior your post is, you help build bridges of understanding between your country and the host country.
How have you managed to balance your life as a diplomat and a diplomat’s wife?
I had a few postings before I was married to a fellow diplomat; first, in Belgium at the Turkish Permanent Mission to the EU. Before taking up my posting, I studied for one year at the College of Europe in Brugge. It was an especially interesting time to be in Brussels as a Turkish diplomat because it coincided with the time Turkey and the EU entered a Customs Union. Turkey was the only country to have a Customs Union with the EU without being a member except Andorra.
After that I went to Uzbekistan and following that I was posted to Washington, DC where I spent close to three years before returning to Turkey. It was then that me and my husband got married. Later, we were fortunate to be posted together, in Belgium: my husband at our NATO mission and me again at the Turkish Permanent Delegation to the EU. Those years for me were very busy as Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU were at their most intense.
We were then back in Turkey and worked as deputy directors general at different Foreign Ministry departments until 2016, when we were both promoted to be Ambassadors, me to Thailand and my husband to Brunei Darussalam.
We thought we might see each other every two-three weeks, but it turned out to be more like every two months. Now, because of Covid, it has been months since we last met. Diplomatic life keeps me on my toes all the time. It is a lifestyle with 24-hour responsibility. It can be more enriching when one’s spouse is also there as the activities of spouses provide an additional insight. Maybe because I don't have spouse support here, I have tried to be more active and that is what I mean by being on my toes all the time.
Can you now tell us something about Turkish-Thai diplomatic relations?
Turkey and Thailand celebrated the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties in 2018. However, we have had relations and been friends much longer than this. Official records between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Siam unfortunately do not seem to go as far though. The book “The Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Siam Through the Ages” by Prof. İsmail Hakkı Kadı, which is the result of the vision of former Minister of Foreign Affairs, HE Kasit Piromya and a dedicated work of many people from Turkish and Thai institutions as well as Royal Thai Embassy in Ankara provides us with significant research in this context. We learn that according to French, Persian and Portuguese sources of 16th-17th centuries, some Ottomans were given senior offices, including military responsibilities by Siamese Kings and that an Ottoman was a Governor of today’s Bangkok around 1680.
The visit to İstanbul by HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab in 1891 is considered the first direct contact between Ottoman and Siamese royals. The Prince met personally Sultan Abdülhamid II, the reception of the Siamese delegation was very warm and the visit very successful. The Prince visited modern education institutions and made observations on reforms in the Ottoman Empire. In 1899, Prince Chakrabongse came to İstanbul to present the Medals of the Order of the Royal House of Chakri to the Ottoman Sultan. A decade after that, Prince Boworadet, a cousin of King Chulalongkorn, visited Istanbul, for observing military infrastructure as reported by the records of that time.
The multidimensional exchanges between our two countries go beyond these royal visits, encompassing Ottoman Empire’s relations in Southeast Asia in 16th century, trade by private individuals and relations between Muslim communities and the Ottomans.
Ibrahim Nana, President of Anjuman Islam, has provided financial support to the Ottomans in the Balkan wars in 1912-13. Today, one can see the Ottoman Coat of Arms at the entrance to Bang Uthit Mosque, in Bangkok, across from Asiatique.
Coming back to today, the most recent high level visit between Turkey and Thailand was the visit of HE Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, on 26-30 July 2019 to Thailand on the occasion of the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Bangkok under Thailand's ASEAN Presidency.
Turkey and Thailand have signed various agreements in tourism, civil aviation, economic and technical cooperation and trade, including the prevention of double taxation and reciprocal protection of investments. Several MOUs, such as to support our SMEs which saw our SMEs now working closer together. The signing of an MOU in 2018 for bilateral cooperation between TÜBİTAK of Turkey and its Thai counterpart, NSTDA has increased mutual cooperation in scientific research.
Before the lockdown, our entrepreneurs and businesspersons were making bilateral visits, serving on joint business panels, developing new contacts and achieving concrete results. Before Covid-19 restrictions, Turkish Airlines was flying to Bangkok three times a day and once a day to Phuket, totalling 28 flights a week.
We also have a Business Council established in 2011. It is a structure with two pillars, a Turkey and a Thai Business Council, each with its own President. The Turkey-Thai Business Council and the Thai-Turkish Business Council are the only legitimate and reliable platforms for private businesses to come together. Yes, Covid has affected us, but we quickly adapted ourselves to the “new normal” and now we hold B2B online meetings through the Business Councils. In fact, we recently hosted a joint business webinar with sectoral meetings.
Allow me to stress here that the so-called Thai-Turkish Chamber of Commerce under the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand does not represent Turkey. It has no legitimacy for my Government. It was set up by those affiliated with the FETO, the terrorist organization which attempted a bloody coup in 2016.
FETO is headed by Fethullah Gülen, who has created a cult like secret organization with people loyal only to him, whom he has helped infiltrate into state bureaucracy over many decades with the ultimate aim to overthrow our Constitutional order.
On July 15th 2016, Gülen disciples within the armed forces used lethal military force against innocent civilians, bombed our Parliament, attempted at the life of our President, killing 251 of our citizens who tried to stop them and wounded more than 2200. FETO is unprecedented in terms of its global reach, ambitions and methods. Through careful concealment, it has managed to establish itself under a façade of so-called charitable organizations or schools not only in Turkey but in over 160 countries. Their modus operandi is the same everywhere. As they aim to infiltrate and enlarge their global economic and political influence, they constitute a direct security threat for any country where they operate. They have four schools in Thailand, which we think should be closed as has been the case in nearly 40 other countries or turned over to a Turkish foundation.
We warn our friends against this structure. We are satisfied with the rising awareness against this group as a consequence of our efforts. Several international organizations have adopted vital resolutions regarding FETO. Countries that investigated and monitored this group have often found that they are involved in an extensive list of crimes such as money laundering, intimidation, bribery and passport/visa fraud.
A resolution declaring FETO a terrorist organization was adopted at the 43rd session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers in 2016. The Asian Parliamentary Assembly also declared FETO a terrorist organization in 2016.
I urge all interested parties to contact our Embassy, our Commercial Counselor and also the Business Councils for matters related to Turkey in commerce, trade or business if they need any type of information or support.
When it comes to trade, which sectors do you feel have been the most important for the two countries?
Trade volume between our countries doesn't truly represent our potential; last year, it was valued at around US$1.5 billion, and in favour of Thailand. We are working to increase trade and in a more balanced. We began negotiating a Free Trade Agreement in 2017. Our aim was to conclude the negotiations this year, but there might be a delay, because of Covid-19, as the follow-up meetings have been postponed. When concluded, bilateral trade is expected to increase by 40%.
We export and import similar products; automotive and air conditioning parts, jewellery, gold, rubber, fibres and vegetables. One may think this brings limitations to our trade opportunities, however it is always possible to think out of the box to find comparative advantages and joint opportunities.
Turkey and Thailand are major fruit producers. Fortunately, we have different types of fruit. Recently, we received permission to export Turkish apples here as Turkey is a big apple producer.
Another development we are proud of is that last year in December, a Turkish company, Bozankaya supplied the BTS Green Line with 88 train cars designed and completely built in Turkey.
Some of our largest companies have made Thailand their production hub for Southeast Asia. Koç Group, which is in the automotive industry, tourism, white ware and household appliances as well as education in Turkey, chose to set up a factory in Thailand. Under brand BEKO, which is the number one kitchen utensils supplier in Europe, they opened a plant in Rayong to manufacture refrigerators, with a capacity of one million units for both export from Thailand and sales here.
Another major Turkish conglomerate, Sabancı Group produces steel cord for tires for aircraft and cars in Ayutthaya, manufacturing for 2 out of every 3 aircraft and for 1 out of every 3 cars. They also make composite material for airplane wings and bodies. Then, we have Hidromek factory located in Rayong, producing excavation and construction vehicles.
These companies, among our biggest, are reference investors for further commercial collaborations. I am proud that they have factories here, employ hundreds of people and contribute to exports of Thailand.
Investments are important bridges between our countries making our cooperation more solid and long term. CP Group and Indorama are the two main Thai companies with investments in Turkey. We want to see more Thai investments and businesses in Turkey where there are numerous opportunities especially with ongoing mega infrastructure projects. I think both countries can also invest in in the tourism sector where both have accumulated enormous experience and know-how.
We have a number of businesses here active in tourism and three of these Turkish companies last year brought about a million international tourists to Thailand.
What advice would you give to Thai entrepreneurs who may be interested in investing in Turkey?
Turkey is 13th economy in the world in terms of PPP. It is a large economy, a big and developed market, with very modern infrastructure and highly skilled and educated work force. Within four hours flight in any direction from Turkey, we can reach 1.5 billion consumers. Turkey truly is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. We are also part of Customs Union with the EU. In Turkey, investments can be 100% foreign owned, and we provide very attractive incentives for investments in infrastructure. In addition, Turkey is now ranked 33rd in the world for ease of doing business. In the UN human development index, Turkey has moved up to 59th place, the category of highest development. Like Thailand, we have been putting greater emphasis on digitalization with much progress on e-Government, e-commerce and e-customs. Turkey is ranked among the top 5 destinations for medical tourism. Many EU citizens come to Turkey for surgery and treatments because of our advanced medical technology and high-quality physicians. Then there is our vast hospitality sector with state of the art tourism infrastructure with many varieties of hotels and restaurants. The rich culture and history of Turkey together with its amazing natural beauties offers ample business opportunities in the hospitality sector.
Consider: Turkey has been home to many ancient cultures, Hittites, Frygians, Lydians, Romans, Seljuks dating back 5000-12000 years. The ancient caves and underground cities of Cappadocia are the most popular touristic and cultural sights Thai people visit. Visitors view the faery chimneys, amazing rock formations, from above in hot air balloons and world’s largest underground city was recently discovered in this region.
Not far away is the ancient city of Troy as well as rich Roman ruins. Of course, there is Istanbul, situated on two continents, once a capital to 3 empires, with a deep history, and magnificent architectural structures; mosques, like the Hagia Sophia Mosque and the Blue Mosque as well as the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest covered bazaars with 4,000 shops dating to 1460 and the Topkapı Palace. Another area where Turkey offers a reliable partner to Thailand is defense industry.
In 2019, 5 Turkish companies were listed in TOP 100 list ranking defense industry companies based on defense related revenue. 70% self reliant in defense industries, Turkey is now manufacturing defense products from rifles to armored vehicles, helicopters to warships and UAV’s and exporting them.
Now, let’s talk a little about cultural collaboration. What types of activities were you promoting before the Covid-19 lockdown and what plans do you have for the future?
Before the pandemic, in addition to bilateral visits, we held tourism and culture panel discussions and workshops. We organised film showings. In the context of our 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, 2018 was declared Reciprocal Culture Year; the then Minister of Culture of Thailand visited Turkey and for the opening of our activities, the then Deputy Minister of Tourism and Culture of Turkey visited Thailand. We organized photography exhibitions, dance and musical performances and a fashion show in Bangkok. Similarly, Thailand organized beautiful activities in three of the biggest Turkish cities which drew large audiences.
Most recently in November 2019 “A Taste of Turkey” event brought three chefs to Bangkok to prepare authentic dishes for one week. At the same time, we held a fashion show with designs based on the ancient site of Göbeklitepe, the oldest temple in the world of 12000 years; and recitals by Turkish musicians.
We have also had Turkish designers participate in the annual Celebration of Thai Silk held for the past 10 years to honour HM the Queen Mother Sirikit. During my tenure, we hosted jazz and “ney” (a typical Turkish flute) concerts by prominentTurkish musicians and a concert by a renowned Turkish pianist and percussionist. I am happy to say the majority of these artists were women.
Before the coronavirus hit, I was making plans to hold another photography exhibition, now it will all depend on the Covid situation.
Since coming to Thailand in 2017, what has impressed you most?
As a posting in the Asia-Pacific, Thailand is and will always be a “first love”. Thai cuisine is one of the best in the world. I love the mixes of wonderful spices and herbs and the elegant way in which the dishes are presented and served.
I am very impressed by the warmth of Thai people, which reminds me of my country. Thailand is a land of smiles, yes, but for me it is not how often people smile; rather, how beautifully they smile, as their faces light up when they smile. I had hoped to learn Thai, but I just haven’t had the time. Still, I try to pick it up as best as I can. I find it interesting how Thai has many words to distinguish seniority. I appreciate Thai art in all its forms - and fashion of course: the exquisite silks and jewelleries reflect the great craftsmanship of the people and the depth of this culture. Then, there is beautiful architecture with magnificent temples - and of course, the spirituality of the people which make all of this so much more meaningful.
I feel I have been here for some very defining moments in Thailand’s recent history. With the passing of King Rama IX shortly before I was due to arrive, I experienced the national mourning period. I attended the funeral ceremonies in which our then Deputy Prime Minister came to participate, representing Turkey.
Then, there was the magnificent coronation ceremonies for HM King Rama X, as well as the Royal Barge Procession which as the diplomatic corps, we were honoured to be a part of.
Another milestone during my three and a half years in Bangkok was witnessing the election process in Thailand after 5 years.
Thailand is like a precious diamond with many facets, all shining so bright. I enjoy visiting different parts of this beautiful country. I extend once again my deep appreciation to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture for organizing diplomatic study trips for us and our spouses. Extremely interesting, meticulously put together, these trips have been lots of fun and very informative. They will truly remain as among my best memories. One such trip we made most recently was to Ayutthaya where we had the chance to visit the new Arts of the Kingdom Museum. A most impressive collection of Thai traditional artwork, showcasing gold, silver, silk and woodwork. I also love Thai silk and am awed by how the hand weavings are so detailed. Traditional dance and musical performances, Khon performances I’ve seen have also impressed me tremendously.
Thailand’s culture is just so rich. As many countries appear to be losing touch with their traditions, Thailand is trying to conserve and preserve these treasures. Everywhere I go, I see an element of connecting the creativity of the past to the present, ways of perfecting it, and proudly passing the knowledge and appreciation on to next generations.
Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Turkey and Thailand are important drivers in their regions with goals they have set for themselves. Turkey is aiming at ranking among the top 10 economies in the world. Technology, connectivity, digitalization, big data are all on our common agenda. We still have untapped potential to deepen our cooperation in a number of areas. I am following closely the Eastern Economic Corridor Project here in Thailand and encouraging our businesses to be a part of it.
Covid has challenged us all in ways we may not have imagined. But globalization will not cease; it will be reshaped, refocused perhaps with more emphasis on regional initiatives. I would like to highlight that Turkey with an enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy is a regional and a global player. This brings many opportunites for us to tap into our potential for deeper cooperation. With 246 missions abroad, we are rank among the top 5 countries with the largest diplomatic network.
Turkey’s human-centered state tradition compels us to work with an enterprising spirit in the humanitarian dimension in foreign policy. With 8.6 billion USD of humanitarian assistance in 2018, we are the largest humanitarian donor in the World. A G-20 member and a member or observer of nearly all international or regional organizations, we place special significance on our relations with the Asia-Pacific. I mentioned our vast number of missions, a result of this policy of we are represented with resident Embassies in all 10 ASEAN countries.
We have a new policy called "Asia Anew” in which we are promoting developing stronger relations with the countries of this region. This means that Turkey’s interest in Thailand and in the ASEAN region will continue to grow and we hope that this interest will pave the way to even more beneficial interactions for all sides.
Our relations with Thailand are important both bilaterally, in a regional context as well as in multilateral platforms. We are active in many international fora; I am proud to say that Turkey is currently chairing the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the D-8 and is term President of the Southeast Balkan Cooperation Process; we also chaired the European Security and Cooperation Forum up until April 2020.
Most recently, a Turkish diplomat and our former President of Parliament Foreign Relations Committee was elected the President of the 75th UN General Assembly. Another Turkish diplomat is currently the President of UNESCO 40th General Conference. Turkey and Thailand as drivers of regional cooperation have many opportunities to cooperate closely.
I also want to congratulate Thailand on how well you have controlled the spread of Covid-19. I am impressed by how everyone has cooperated. In Turkey, we have also done well. We have as many as 523 hospitals devoted to treating Covid-19 patients and our ICU units are only working at around 10% capacity while our fatality rate remains low. At the same time, we have provided assistance to many countries, like the US, Italy, Spain and UK, in fact to over 100 countries that have asked for support.
Covid-19 has been a challenge for all of us, but as the world adjusts and countries reopen, I hope that Turkey and Thailand can take advantage of the opportunities that will come up or simply create new ones together.