Former Thai Foreign Minister Back at UCLA, with Stories to Tell

Former Thai Foreign Minister Back at UCLA, with Stories to Tell

Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

Kantathi Suphamongkhon, Thailand's UCLA-educated former 39th foreign minister, shares his experiences with students in a lecture delivered as part of International Education Week. Suphamongkhon is a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center and a UC Regents' Professor.

If he took two minutes to look at each of the gifts given to the deceased Kim, it would take over two years.

When Kantathi Suphamongkhon came to UCLA as a freshman, he couldn't have imagined the route he would take before his return this summer as a UC Regents' Professor and Burkle Center senior fellow.

In his Nov. 15, 2007, inaugural lecture of the Distinguished International Speaker Series sponsored by the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, Suphamongkhon told the audience he wanted to broaden his horizons in college. For the son of Thailand's first ambassador to Australia, that meant studying anything but political science and international relations. So he explored psychology, biology, and physics, but in the end, "political science was at my heart," he said. He would earn a doctorate across town at the University of Southern California.

Suphamongkhon, Thailand's 39th foreign minister until the bloodless September 2006 military coup, shared an insider's perspective of diplomacy and personal stories over the arc of his career. About 50 people attended the event.

As a junior officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Suphamongkhon said, he received an assignment to compose, within four hours, a Thai proposal to insert into the foreign minister's speech to the United Nations. As it happened, that day he was at home sick with a fever. Suphamongkhon said that, as he wished he were in better health to work under such pressure, thoughts of preventive medicine led him to suggest an early warning system to prevent conflicts around the world – preventive diplomacy. He drafted a few paragraphs, submitted it, and the foreign minister used it in his speech.

"I remember after the speech, the United States, the Soviet Union, western European countries were calling the Thai Foreign Ministry asking about this early warning system, and all the calls were directed to me," he laughed.

A year later, the United Nations created the Office for Research and the Collection of Information, and Suphamongkhon read that the mandate was "to provide an early warning system for the U.N. Secretary to use in preventive diplomacy." While Suphamongkhon couldn't claim his few hours of work led to the creation of that office, he came away believing that junior officers were as capable of effecting change as anyone else.

Suphamongkhon also shared his experience visiting North Korea years later at the invitation of the Korean Workers' Party as a representative of his country's Rak Thai party. He said he was surprised to receive numerous phone calls from North Korea's ambassador before the trip inquiring about the gifts Suphamongkhon would bring for "dear leader" Kim Jong Il and "great leader" Kim Il Sung. Although Kim Il Sung was dead, Suphamongkhon was asked to bring a grander gift for him than for the sitting ruler.

Upon arriving in North Korea, officials took Suphamongkhon to the buildings where all the gifts are stored. They told Suphamongkhon that if he took two minutes to look at each of the gifts given to the deceased Kim, it would take over two years. He saw computers and cars, none of which had ever been used, among the gifts.

In his years as a diplomat, Suphamongkhon has spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about North Korea, and he has spoken "frankly" with her for missing an important ASEAN regional forum, prompting her to promise and attend the next meeting a year in advance. He personally negotiated the release of Thai citizens held hostage by insurgents in Nigeria. He negotiated the release of another citizen possibly abducted in North Korea. He asked President Arroyo of the Philippines if she would instruct her embassy in Lebanon to evacuate Thai nationals when violence broke out there. He also urged Myanmar to skip its ASEAN chairmanship turn in order to focus on domestic concerns.

After serving as a junior officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Suphamongkhon represented Thailand as a diplomat at the United Nations in New York for four years. He returned and worked briefly as the adviser in foreign affairs to the speaker of the House of Representatives before the Thai parliament was dissolved in 1992. When parliament was reinstated, he was appointed director for policy and planning at the Foreign Ministry. After a period in the private sector, he was twice elected as a member of parliament for a Bangkok constituency. Later, he was appointed foreign affairs adviser to the prime minister. In 2001, he helped form the Thai Rak Thai party, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's ruling party until the 2006 coup. He became trade minister in 2001 and foreign minister in 2005.

"UCLA taught me how to structure my thoughts and analysis, and that made it easy for me to work in so many diverse subjects in the world: domestic politics, foreign policy, business, and all others," Suphamongkhon said.

Published: Thursday, November 15, 2007