Story by Kathleen Pokrud
Ambassador Suchitra Durai of India discusses the very expansive business, trade, and cultural relations between India and Thailand and her hopes for post Covid-19.
Next year, India and Thailand will celebrate 75 years of diplomatic relations. HE Suchitra Durai, Ambassador of India to Thailand, arrived in Thailand at the end of 2018, and has now been residing in Bangkok for more than two years. Elite+ was recently given the opportunity to interview the ambassador to learn about the close ties between India and Thailand.
A veteran diplomat for more than 32 years, prior to taking up the ambassadorship in Thailand HE Suchitra was the Indian Ambassador to Kenya from 2015 to 2018. She came from a family of civil servants, and set her goal to be a diplomat at the young age of 12. After passing the national civil service examination, which is one of the toughest in the world, she fulfilled her wish to join the Foreign Service in 1988. Since then, she has served both in the capital and at Indian embassies abroad in Europe, South America, Africa and now in Southeast Asia.
Q: As the wife of a now retired diplomat, how did serving in the Foreign Service affect both of your professional and personal lives?
A: Naturally, it was not always possible to stay together after we were married, but because we were already quite well established in our careers and running our households independently that part of our lives was not too difficult. However, for the sake of our family, especially our children, we both had to make adjustments. Having common friends and similar experiences served as a source of our bonding and contributed to greater understanding, but sometimes a little friction! Overall, my husband, who retired as Permanent Secretary of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, has been highly supportive of my career.
Q: Next, could you give us some background of the diplomatic relations between India and Thailand?
A: India-Thailand relations are rooted in our age-old religious, cultural and linguistic ties. Buddhism came to Thailand during the period of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. Our contemporary relationship began when India became independent in 1947. We now have a strong multi-faceted partnership: regular high-level engagement, thriving economic and commercial relations, robust defence and security cooperation and regular cultural and P2P exchanges. In 2019, India was among the largest source markets for Thai tourism. Around 1.9 million Indians visited Thailand while approximately 160,000 Thais visited India. We have a good educational exchange programme and offer several university scholarships and nearly 100 short-term training slots to Thailand under the Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation programme.
HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has visited India 20 times. Pre Covid, we had 300 flights every week between India and Thailand. India’s Act East policy is complemented by Thailand’s Act West policy. Apart from our bilateral partnership, we cooperate with Thailand under ASEAN as well as BIMSTEC. Recently, we launched the 75th anniversary celebrations of India’s independence, which will take place in 2022.
Q: Now, turning to trade, could you tell us about trade between India and Thailand as well as ASEAN?
A: Thailand is India’s fifth largest trade partner in ASEAN. Between April 2020 to January 2021, our bilateral trade amounted to around USD 7.4 billion with India’s exports to Thailand amounting to approximately USD 3.2 billion and Thailand’s exports to India around USD 4.2 billion. We have had an Early Harvest Scheme in place with Thailand since 2004, covering 83 products.
As regards ASEAN, the goup is India’s fourth largest trade partner with a total trade of USD 86.91 billion, which is approximately 11% of India’s total global trade. We signed the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) in January 2010, which has contributed greatly to our trade ties with ASEAN.
Q: What advice would you give Thai entrepreneurs interested in investing in India or trading with Indian companies?
A: India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and, thus, can offer numerous attractive investment opportunities for Thai investors. We have liberalised our Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) regime in various sectors such as construction, banking, insurance, railways, media, retail, airlines and defence, allowing up to 100% FDI in some sectors. As part of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat or Self-Reliant India programme, there are now new incentives with Invest India doing the handholding for investments into India. Some big Thai companies have already invested in India such as the CP Group, Ital-Thai Development and SCG. Several Indian companies, including Aditya Birla and Tata Steel, have invested in Thailand as well. India has considerable strength in IT and digital technology as well as space and biotechnology while Thailand has done great work in the automotive sector and construction technology. So, we can mutually benefit through our collaborations.
Q: How big would you say the Indian community is in Thailand and what businesses as well as activities are they involved in?
A: Indian passport holders in Thailand number around 20,000. However, the total community of ethnic Indians is estimated to be around a quarter million strong. Many are 4th or 5th generation Thai nationals or hold nationality of a third country. Recent arrivals are professionals either in the services sector, including tourism, hospitality and banking, or they work at executive management level in companies. The older immigrants began in the textile trade. Now they are in diverse sectors. Indian community associations play an important role in upholding Indian culture and values. They are also engaged in philanthropic activities. During the Covid 19 pandemic, they have donated a lot to Thai society, and play an important role as a bridge between India and Thailand.
Q: The Covid 19 pandemic has had a profound effect on virtually all countries. Can you tell us the current situation in India and how your government is coping with this?
A: The Covid-19 pandemic is indeed the most disrupting event in modern world history. Every country and their economies are bearing the brunt. India managed to withstand the first wave of the pandemic fairly successfully. Our government launched a major stimulus programme amounting to almost 13% of the GDP. On 16 January 2021, we began the national vaccination drive with two domestically produced vaccines – Covishield and Covaxin.
Unfortunately, even as these positive developments were taking place, we have been affected by a second wave of the pandemic beginning in April 2021, as new variants came in from abroad. Both the central and state governments are taking all steps they can, including local lockdowns and ramping up the medical infrastructure. While we are self-sufficient in most essential medicines and oxygen generation, what is needed is the logistics of distribution, especially tankers and cylinders. We thank all countries, including Thailand, which have extended timely assistance in oxygen related equipment.
Q: India is one of the leading countries in producing Covid 19 vaccines, which in addition to distributing in your own country, you have been providing to other countries as well. Could expand on this, please.
A: India has a well-developed pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector since the 1960s. We have one of the largest immunisation programmes in the world. We have been exporting vaccines for a long time. We have two “Made in India” Covid vaccines – the Covishield (developed by AstraZeneca and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India) and Covaxin (developed indigenously by the Indian Council for Medical Research and manufactured by Indian company Bharat Biotech) approved for emergency use. We have vaccinated around 160 million people up to present. As part of our Vaccine Maitri (or Vaccine Friendship) programme, India has supplied more than 66 million vaccines to around 95 countries. We also supplied essential medicines to over 150 countries last year.
Q: Once Thailand can once again lift restrictions, what type of cultural and investment promotional activities are you planning and what adjustments did you have to make previously.
A: We have learnt in the last year to adapt to the new normal – that is, we have shifted to online activities in a big way. We have adopted stringent safety measures for the public and as well as for embassy officials. The Indian Cultural Centre is conducting all its classes online, which have led to increased enrolment! We have held a number of commercial events in a hybrid mode, including Buyer Seller Meets and promotional launches. In March 2021, we even organised a public event for the launch of the 75th anniversary celebrations of India’s independence with around 180 guests, which was presided over by HE Khun Chuan Leekpai, the president of Thailand’s National Assembly. Now, in keeping with local restrictions, we are once more in a total on-line mode.
Q: Since coming down to Thailand, what has impressed you most about Thailand and its culture?
A: The people of Thailand are very cultured and respectful. They speak softly. There is a high level of discipline and civic cleanliness in the country. Thai people are friendly and their smile is of course most charming. I really like the graceful way they ‘wai’, which is similar to the namaste of India. In the present Covid-19 era, it is a most appropriate way of greeting.
Q: Have you been able to travel much around the Kingdom and region, and what impressions and memories will you take with you when your posting here ends?
A: In 2019, during the first year of my tenure I travelled a lot – Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Pattaya, Korat, Hua Hin, Ayuthaya, Sukhothai and some other parts of central Thailand. In 2020, I travelled less but managed to cover some places, including in the south. My impressions of Thailand are the beautiful beaches of Phuket and Ko Samui, the glorious architecture of the heritage temples of the Khmer period in Phimai and Phanom Rung and, of course, Chiang Mai which is my favourite place. I will also cherish the wonderful textiles and handicrafts I have seen and collected. Above all, I do enjoy the vibrancy of Bangkok.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
A: We will continue to work hard to further strengthen India-Thailand relations. Our next major event is the International Day of Yoga on 21 June. The world has come to realise during the Covid 19 period that yoga is a wonderful way to achieve holistic health. Any one, at any age, can practice yoga. It can help office workers, students and homemakers to deal with stress, manage life-style diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol, and also help in pain management. So, keep track of our social media accounts and join us in celebrating Yoga Day.