Remarks by Ambassador Michael George DeSombre at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University


Thank you to the Venerable Professor Dr. Phra Rajapariyatkavi for your warm welcome, for sharing your beautiful campus with me, and for inviting me to speak to you all today.

Thank you also to Vice Rector Phra Ajaan Sawai Chotiko and his team for arranging my visit.

I am deeply honored to be President Trump’s personal representative to the Kingdom of Thailand, and to address you in that role on a subject that is dear to the President, as it is to many Americans: religious freedom.  As an American who has lived overseas and raised my family abroad, I have been able to see my country more clearly and appreciate the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. One of the most important of these freedoms is the freedom of religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those are not my words, but the words of our founding fathers – written in 1789 as the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. At the very foundation of our Republic, the founding fathers enshrined in our Constitution freedom of religion as a first principal, in the same breath as freedom of speech, the freedom to peacefully assemble, and the freedom to petition our government for a redress of grievances. The United States has stood for religious liberty from its founding, and even before.

The first Americans came to the new world in the seventeenth century to be free to worship as their consciences dictated, escaping a European continent that at that point in its history was still dominated by establishment churches and prescribed religion. The early faith of these first Americans – whom today we call Pilgrims – was the genesis for our belief in the freedom of religion, a belief that quickly grew to cover not only the many forms of Christianity but also Islam and Judaism as early as the mid-1600s.

With further waves of immigrants from around the world, the United States welcomed adherents of many other religions, including, of course, Buddhists, who began arriving in the 1820s, with the first Buddhist temple built in San Francisco in 1853. My own ancestors were Huguenots, minority Protestants in Catholic France. My ancestors were persecuted for their faith and fled to Germany rather than convert to Catholicism at about the same time as the first Pilgrims came to the American colonies. In the early 1900s, my ancestors immigrated to the United States, weaving their own immigrant story into the canvas of American history. Many of the new immigrants coming to the colonies were moving to the new world to establish communities of faith that were oppressed in their home countries.

Four of our first states, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, were specifically founded to protect religious freedom – some were Catholics escaping imposed Protestantism, some Protestants escaping imposed Catholicism, but all confident in their belief that they would be able to freely practice their religion in the land that would become the United States of America. It was this experience of religious liberty that encouraged our founding fathers to ensure that no religion would be given preference over any other, and that all people would be free to practice the religion of their choice, or none at all.

Thomas Jefferson – the author of the American Declaration of Independence and our third President – perhaps captured this sentiment best when he said, “the subject of religion . . . is a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, and far less the public, has a right to inter-meddle,” adding that, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.” Thomas Paine, one of Jefferson’s colleagues, explained why this was so necessary, writing, “Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty. . . . As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.” Since that time, Americans have continued to welcome people of all faiths to the United States to live and work side by side and to practice, or not practice, their faith. Throughout our country’s history, we have always strived to live up to this ideal.  We have worked to protect all faiths, and today the United States is taking the lead to protect religious freedom throughout the world.

We will continue to push for this freedom.  We believe it is a fundamental right.  We believe that by embracing freedom of religion, a country will grow stronger and flourish. By empowering people to pursue their own faith, countries like the United States and Thailand build foundations of tolerance and trust that benefit their societies.  In such societies, interfaith cooperation flourishes and religious communities contribute significantly to social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations.

Thailand first welcomed Americans in the mid 1800s.  These men and women of strong religious faith worked with their Thai brethren to establish medical institutions throughout the country such as McCormick Hospital – where the father of King Rama 9 Prince Mahidol treated patients after returning from Harvard Medical School. They also build schools like Dara Academy – one of the first to educate girls in northern Thailand – as well as Payap University which have trained a generation of Thai healthcare workers, lawyers and – yes – clergy. These were men and women of different faiths, drawn together by a respect for religious freedom and the common call to improve people’s lives in God’s name. And as Americans, not only do we accept the faith of others and our call to serve others, but we also oppose those who target others for their faith, whether that be terrorists or governments that oppress religion for ideological reasons. More than eight in ten people in the world today live where they cannot practice their faith freely. Together, we must continue to defend the right of people everywhere to freely practice their religion.

This is a top priority for the United States. As Secretary Pompeo said at the July 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, “The protection of religious freedom is central to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and protecting this human right is an essential part of who we are as Americans.”  The Ministerial was the largest religious freedom event of its kind in the world, with more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders, and more than 100 foreign delegations invited.

President Trump built on this landmark gathering by creating the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Alliance on February 5, 2020, to coordinate the efforts of governments and civil society to: advance the right of freedom of religion for all, including the right to not believe; and to protect religious minorities from persecution. Another group that addresses religious freedom in a way that I think is particularly relevant to Thailand is the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which brings together a diverse group of nearly 30 countries and international organizations committed to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief in a more informal setting. The International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief is co-hosted by Canada and the United States and meets regularly to discuss strategies to protect and promote Freedom of Religion or Belief internationally. We look forward to welcoming likeminded countries that care about religious freedom to join the International Contract Group to advance its vital mission. I am proud to champion a value held not only by Americans, but by people of faith across the globe, including here in Thailand, where you have opened your doors and hearts to those of diverse faiths.

This year, Thailand celebrates the 142nd anniversary of the Edict of Religious Tolerance, announced by King Chulalongkorn in 1878.   The Edict was in response to the work of Christian missionaries in Thailand at the time, and was a major turning point in the definition of religion in Thailand.  Because of it, Thais and foreigners of faith could continue their work for the benefit of the Thai people. A part of the Edict of Religious Tolerance says that whoever wishes to embrace any religion, after seeing that it is true and proper, is allowed to do so without any restriction, and that the responsibility rests on the individual.  This is a powerful ideal and was quite forward looking at the time.  Since then, every constitution of Thailand has recognized religious freedom. This respect for religious freedom and individual responsibility is a value Thais and Americans share and cherish and it has made our two countries stronger and better.

Turning to you assembled here today, I commend you as you prepare to travel oversees to serve in the numerous Thai Buddhist temples around the world, including over 100 Thai temples in the United States.  This is not an easy calling.  You have had to learn a new language and you will have to adapt to living in a new culture. Some of you may even experience snow for the first time! You should be proud of your dedication and hard work. Our diplomats at the Embassy are familiar with the process of learning and adapting to new cultures. We know the joys of meeting new people and being accepting of new beliefs. I hope you will see the best of America.  That you will experience the kindness and compassion that Americans are known for. I hope you will have the opportunity to experience interfaith community with other faith leaders. That you can share your faith and work side by side with others to achieve positive results. I hope you will get the opportunity not only to work together but also to share a meal and socialize with Americans. And I hope you come to love America as much as I have come to love Thailand.

Thank you.