A match made in heaven

The US embassy’s No.2 in Thailand, Peter Haymond, has a deep affinity and history with his host country, cemented by the fact that his wife is Thai.

The Haymonds make a couple fittingly posted here in Thailand. Peter Haymond is the US embassy’s newest deputy chief of mission– the No.2 in the line of command after the ambassador — and is no rookie in Thailand. At a reception held at his ambassador’s residence, he made a speech partly in English and partly in Thai, conveniently being able to turn to ask his wife for a better word to use because she, Dusadee, is Thai.

The couple married during his third return to Thailand, but the deputy’s history with Thailand dates back to 1967. He arrived as a seven-year-old with his father, who worked as a contractor for the US government, and had accumulated the ability to tonelessly count to 100 in Thai by the end of their two-year stay.

In this fifth stint in the country, he has come a long way from eyeing Thai food suspiciously. Once one to refuse eating anything besides plain rice, Haymond recalls with a laugh, “My parents said I liked to eat things out of a can. But I think they got me to start eating Thai fruit at least. When I came back and was teaching, speaking and living close to Thai people, I discovered that Thai food is without question, the best in the world. Thai food is the very brightest fusion of different food influences.

“Similarly, as with any place else over time, and as I developed Thai friends, relatives and experiences watching different Thai governments and living in different parts of Thailand, I think I better learned to understand and appreciate both the richness of Thai culture and some of the challenges of Thailand’s economic and political development.”

Thanks to his years living among the locals while working as a missionary during his second stay in Thailand, Haymond has a head start when it comes to understanding Thai culture. It was also the time he learned to speak Thai, a milestone that he counts as life changing. Besides the fact that it made him seek Thai friends when he went back to university at Tufts, which led him to meeting his wife (then a Thai diplomat on study leave), Haymond says it also made him want to have an international career.

“Lots of young people who came as I did, whether as volunteers, teachers or in the Peace Corps, gained experience and it helps people build their own understanding of another culture. I believe it’s true for most young people who have an experience abroad. They may not decide to take up an international career, but it changes their perspective and understanding of the world — to speak another language, to have insights into another culture.”

Thailand — it is almost a cliched to say this despite the gravity of the sentence — is the oldest and staunchest ally of the US in the region. Throughout 220 years of diplomatic relations, the two nations have stuck together through good and bad times, especially during the communist scare and the Vietnam War years. In the past few decades, the US and Thailand have treasured the shared goal of economic co-operation as politics has given way to business, meanwhile the Thai military has long had a close relationship and support from its US counterpart.

But since the military government took power, opinions are divided regarding the US’ comments and relations towards the junta. As a person deeply connected to Thailand, Haymond has returned to Thailand with a heavy heart regarding our political divisiveness.

“When I was here last, there were governments that were changing every two to three years. I was also here during a couple of coups of different periods. I don’t remember the division in the country that seems to have developed in recent years. That’s been troubling to come back to, for somebody who values a long association with Thailand, who cherishes many friendships with Thai people.”

At sensitive times like these, compounded by social media noise, there is anti-US sentiment, faint though visible, among Thai nationalists who perceive the US as interfering in our domestic affairs.

Regarding this issue, he says: “When the US expresses concerns about a particular policy or particular act, it seems on occasion that the government interprets that somehow as support for the other side — the non-government side. It may be a natural feeling, but from our perspective, we try our best to express support for principles, rather than for particular parties. If you go back into the records or major papers, you would find that in the past 15 years or more, under governments led by different parties through time, there have been statements by the US government expressing concern about some action or policy that the government at that time didn’t like, appreciate or care for.”

The 56-year-old has sympathy for the situation, but empathy for Thailand’s political circus springs from his own country.

“Empathy comes from consciousness that we in the US, as you see in any headline, have our own issues with different views. Often they’re very different views regarding the government and sometimes, in not very calm language. As I mentioned principles, we try to do that at home too. We’re not always successful, as you can see from the papers. There are incidents around our country where we need to work harder at implementing the principles of governance that we’re trying to support there and around the world.”

Trying to make it clear when making statements, as well as highlighting the longstanding relationship between Thailand and the US, is what Haymond hopes to focus on here. In fact, he says the Thai-US partnership, which dates back to the 1830s, was something he was always aware of every time he lived in Thailand — this including his childhood days remembering Thailand and the US operating together in the Vietnam War.

The partnerships that Thailand and the US foster range in a vast number of fields, from economics, health, education, security/defence to law enforcement. Thailand is actually the home to one of five International Law Enforcement Academies around the world and also the only in Asia. Hosted in Thailand, with instructors provided by the US, students from Asean and a few other countries work on trafficking, counterfeiting and terrorist issues and post-blast forensics — a clear example that illustrates how our relationship also benefits others.

“We’ve had a very effective partnership with every government in Thailand going back 200 years,” says Haymond. “During all these periods with Thailand, whether under a military, democracy or royal government, we’ve been able to work effectively together. During this period, what I particularly want to do supporting my ambassador and others, is to heighten awareness both among Thais and Americans of the many fruits of the many positive results of the long-standing partnership between our peoples.”

Dusadee, once a Thai language instructor who now works as a freelance writer and translator, playfully teases her husband for using the wrong tone — that he was speaking in Lao just then and not Thai. Their relationship is a micro look at US-Thai relations, no doubt being able to practice Thai and Lao being one of the many upsides. But be the scale micro or macro, we can only hope for a brighter and smoother-sailing tomorrow. As Haymond concludes: “I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that the US government and people wish Thailand well. For us, we will try to show our attitude towards Thailand by a desire for a partnership. It’s worked for a long time, but it’s gone through difficult periods and we’ll work through this one, as well.”

This article was originally published in Bangkok Post issue dated September 12, 2016. It was reproduced with permission.