The Honorary British Social Worker: meet Ben Svasti Thomson the Honorary British Consul
Just over three years ago, the British Embassy announced that it was accepting applicants for a new Honorary British Consul for Chiang Mai. This move followed the end of an awkward decade-long policy which saw the automatic appointment as consul of the head of the British Council – generally educators who are rotated into our fair city for a couple of years at a time, with no personal ties, nor vested interest in Chiang Mai, or its British community. Prior to the British Council’s consuls, Her Majesty’s Government had also experimented with two diplomats who were appointed as full consuls, hoping that they could encourage trade and stimulate business between the two nations. In fact, the last locally appointed honorary consul was my father between 1990-1995, and whom, like Ben Svasti Thompson, who was appointed following a lengthy screening process, is of duel Thai-English nationality, and a long term resident of Chiang Mai.
Ben arrives at his position overwhelmingly over qualified and with a unique perspective. “Initially I wasn’t interested in the job, but then I realised that this job was about social work, and that is what I have dedicated my life towards. Problems faced by British nationals are health, encounters with law enforcement and making sure that their rights are respected and that they get assistance, especially with the growing number of retirees. I felt that I could help.”
With a modest estimate of around three thousand Brits living in the north of Thailand, and the extra responsibilities in dealing with the multitude of tourists, Ben’s condition on accepting the salaryless job was that he could only give five hours per week of his time, due to his other work. “Of course that was simply unrealistic. I spend far more time on this job than I initially agreed upon, but I do have to be careful to balance my other responsibilities,” said Ben.
The appointment of Ben can be seen as a conventional choice; his family background – on both sides – alone guarantees his eligibility. Ben has the pedigree of a purebred. Born in London, his father was heir to a chemical industrialist of Scottish descent, was a rubber planter in Malaysia, where he was born, and his mother direct descendant of both Rama IV and Queen Rampai, wife of Rama VII.
“My mum moved to England with the abdicated court of King Rama VII,” explains Ben. “My grandfather, Mom Chao Subhasvasti Svasti was the commander of the British contingent of the Seri Thai freedom movement during the Second World War. Though Seri Thai didn’t do much fighting – as soon as they were parachuted into Thailand the war ended – the fact that they never accepted the declaration of war against the allies, meant that Mountbatten didn’t treat Thailand as a defeated power. Grandfather was even invited to dinner with Churchill and was offered a cigar, which he kept!”
“My mother grew up split between two continents. She went to school at Cheltenham’s Ladies’ College and met my dad when she was studying some course at Cambridge. My father joined the national gallery civil service and became the head of conservation at the National Gallery. He eventually became a prominent authority of the museum environment and received a CBE for his works.”
Upon falling in love, the young couple discovered to their chagrin that their families vociferously opposed their union; the Thai royal family (in spite of its intermittent history of forbidden foreign love) did not approve of one of their daughters marrying a Brit and the British family were aghast at the idea of their son marrying a ‘native’. But love was not to be denied and the couple tied the knot in the early fifties in the family’s Cha-am plantation, the bride’s princely father announcing that it was, “the worst day of my life.”
The young couple settled in England and proceeded to produce four sons, of which Ben is the eldest. “Things were not always easy,” said Ben. “Mum often felt like a second class citizen, and I think that she really suffered away from her close-knit Thai social network. My three brothers and I also encountered some racism at school,” Ben talks at being called a chink when at Charterhouse.
For years Ben, like many luk krung, struggled with his identity. “I lived in the UK until I was 25, and have lived in Thailand ever since, so I have pretty much split my life between the two countries. I understood Thai fluently because of all our visiting cousins, yet English was my first language. In the early days it was mainly the elite Thai who went to the UK to study, but after the ’76 coup, students fled to the UK and my mum took many of them in. They weren’t communists; they were simply activists opposing dictatorship. Many of them have since risen up in government and hold very senior positions today. In the UK I would be teased for being a foreigner and whenever I returned to Thailand I would be seen as a farang. For a while I got depressed and read heavy literature seeking my identity, I even followed a guru to an ashram for a while…But then I realised that I had an advantage; my cultural horizons are wider and my insights deeper because of my background. Suddenly I saw opportunities and became positive. I took a year off after graduating in social anthropology from University College London and headed to Thailand, intending to make it my first stop on a one year round the world trip. I promptly fell in love with a Thai girl, had my heart broken, and didn’t go any further on my travels!”
Ben entered a monastery to seek guidance following his lost love and eventually joined his uncle Prince Bhisadej Rajanee, who had recently been appointed by HM the King to set up the Royal Projects in the north of Thailand. He moved to Chiang Mai and this was when Ben realised that he wanted to give his life to a cause. “In fact, I was so passionate; I thought I wanted to die for a cause!”
In 1979 the Cambodian border became a crisis area with nearly a quarter of a million refugees flooding into temporary camps. Ben headed to Aranyaprathet to work for a relief agency, vowing to stay there until the refugees went home. Brave words. But he stuck to them, even though it took the refugees ten years to return home. “Our job was to try to match the thousands of children with their families, it was a very dangerous time as well, with shells constantly flying over our heads.”
As the crisis eased, and a full decade later, Ben decided to head back to the UK to further his studies and matriculated at Reading University studying rural social development. It was also at this time that he was to marry, if briefly, another well known personality in Chiang Mai today, Vilawan Svetsreni, better known as Ajarn Mai. Again, the mixed marriage faced some opposition, though mild rebuke in comparison to the previous generation’s, “whenever my English grandmother heard that I had a Thai girlfriend, she would say, ‘I hear you are getting overly involved with a native.'”
“I didn’t want to live in Bangkok, so after our marriage, we both decided to move to Chiang Mai and restart our careers again,” explains Ben. “Mai got a job at Chiang Mai University, where she has remained since and I was offered a job by Thammasat University to combat prostitution and empower women in Sanpatong. At the time there had been a fire in a brothel in Phuket, where remains of women were found charred and chained to their beds. It was discovered that these women all came from Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, so Thammasat wanted to go to the root of the problem. We sourced economic development, offered leadership training, social empowerment and options other than prostitution. We also started to teach them to make saa paper products and that is when I set up my business Grassroots, to support its sales. I have since sold Grassroots, but the new company continues to buy saa paper from Sanpatong, marketing it to the UK.”
Following his divorce, Ben spent much of the nineties fighting HIV/Aids in the north of Thailand. He set up Women Against Aids, when his Thammasart contract ended, helping women to empower themselves against Aids. “We taught women to negotiate with their husbands to use condoms with prostitutes. We taught them to refuse sex without condoms. We set up focus groups for women to gain confidence, to support one another, and at times even to gang up on their condomless husbands. At the same time I also ran a project called Model Brothel. In those days brothels were ‘grey’ and basically run by the police. NGOs would contact the police to represent a brothel in negotiations, the police were receiving protection money and they would meet the brothel owners on our behalf. It was good for HIV/Aids prevention because there was a system we could work with. The girls would come for open and regular check-ups; the police would enforce the use of condoms. The girls had rights to protect their reproductive health, they could refuse customers, demand fair wages and the brothel owner would promise to provide hygiene, running water and waste management. This was all during the progressive and successful years of Meechai, The Condom King’s campaigns. Funnily we were condemned by a missionary group, but when we invited them to visit one of our model brothels, they were converted as they realised that at the time there was a severe lack of opportunities for girls from poor families to find viable work, and they ended up being a significant donor. I don’t remember the group’s name now; just as well, they probably don’t want to be named. But then the government changed its policies in the late nineties, brothels and prostitution were deemed illegal and the system broke down.”
“In spite of the success of the 90s Aids beat-down, an entire generation was wiped out in areas like Sanpatong where the children and elderly were left to fend for themselves.”
This was when Ben set up the Mother Child Concern Foundation to help hold families together following Aids devastation, as well as the highly acclaimed Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit, Northern Thailand (TRAFCORD). “We have a staff of ten people – lawyers and social workers who work with the police and public prosecutors. The first step is that you receive a report; it could be from the government, other NGOs, private citizens, the media or parents. You have to verity it, talk to the girls…undercover stuff. Once it has been verified that there is a victim, then a mission is organised to rescue them. We are not cowboys; we work with the police and we are social workers.”
“The good news about Thailand is that the laws, mostly enacted in the past five years, are very progressive. The law sees these women as victims, not wrongdoers; in other countries they would be seen as illegal immigrants or prostitutes. The problem comes with the attitude of male police officers towards crimes against women and immigrants. There is still the, ‘they asked for it’ attitude. Even the judiciary is often prejudiced. We have to be very careful about the officials we select to work with.”
So, with just about every finger and toe stuck into a pie of varying sizes, how does Ben find time for his honorary British consul duties?
“I can’t help everyone,” explains Ben. “But I can set up systems which can help people. That is why we recently set up Lanna Care Net, a network of volunteers who help care for expatriate citizens from all nations who are in trouble. We mainly help the elderly. There must be many foreigners, including Brits, in villages who have over stayed their visa, gone native and live quietly…until they get into trouble. This is increasingly becoming a problem. Even the poor Thai have it better, as they have their 30 baht health care.”
“The problem also lies in the fact that the British embassy has one of the worst records for registrations in Thailand. Many British pensioners dare not register themselves in fear of losing benefits from the UK. It is true that if the pension office finds out that they are living in Thailand that would be a problem, but the foreign office only uses the registration for emergency assistance purposes, and, short of a national security reason, would strongly resist the tax man in gaining information.”
“These are not British problems,” explains Ben. “And that is why I am very active in the Joint Consular Working Group, where consuls meet to discuss shared issues and take them to the relevant Thai authorities. For instance, the problems at immigration. There are 11 officials working on around 500 cases per day. It is very stressful for all involved. We are pushing for online reporting of the 90 day status, which should significantly lessen the burden, as well as improving the queuing system, so if you have waited all day for your number to be called and end up not making the cut off time, you should be able to be at the head of the queue the next morning, not starting over again. We look for win-win situations and while it is not our job to meddle with Thai laws and authorities, we feel that we can help.”
“The Royal British Legion is another group which has been successfully set up in recent years,” continued Ben about the group of volunteers who are gaining traction in raising funds to support those who served with the Royal British Armed Forces, along with their dependants. In fact this November there will be a large fair to raise funds for the Legion at JJ Market, Citylife will announce details in next month’s issue. “I have also always wanted to set up a British Club which focuses around folk songs and promoting cultural heritage. My father used to gather us around the piano to sing old songs – Green Sleeves, Loch Loman, What do you do with a Drunken Sailor, Danny Boy…so it is very important to me. Other things I want to get going are a branch of the British Chamber of Commerce and reviving the annual Queen’s Birthday Parties. The Bangkok British Chamber of Commerce has members who are from multinationals; in Chiang Mai our needs are different, we have smaller businesses and should also focus on a more Thai membership, getting businesses to work together. The birthday parties, well they have never been a bash for the British community, they are mainly intended to publicise Britain with northern VIPs, build trade and education connections. The last one, three years ago, received only 20% of its budget and my staff were worn out trying to raise sponsorship. It was too much. I would like to have the funds to hire an events organiser and make it a more family-oriented event.”
There is another cause which Ben is fighting, and that is to reclaim the encroached upon land for the Rama V-deeded Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery. “HM King Rama V gave the foreign community of Chiang Mai 18 rai of land to bury their dead, appointing the British Embassy as custodian. Over the years we have lost up to 70% of that land, so we are trying to get it back.” Citylife will be bringing you the full story on this effort in the coming months.
In 2005 Ben’s father fell ill from Parkinson’s and it was during that time that Ben set up his company Southern Breeze which promoted Thai culture and events to Europe, post tsunami. “This gave me a chance to spend time with my father before he passed away four years ago. After my father died, my mother decided to sell their home in Surrey and move back to Thailand. Incredibly at the ripe old age of 82 she fell in love again with a young kid in his seventies. Her husband Richard has a residence in the Four Seasons in Mae Rim where they now live. Mum spends her days with me and her nights with her husband. It is odd to think that I am still single and my mum just got remarried! It was the talk of the town, and I actually did the matchmaking,” beamed Ben proudly.
While Ben is most expansive in talking about the many causes he is most passionate about in his professional life, he tends to keep his personal life, well, personal. A confirmed bachelor, with a little reputation garnered over the years for appreciating the ladies, Ben still hopes to one day find a stable living companion, though he says that marriage is probably no longer on the cards. Remarkably, he seems to be able to carve out some time to indulge in leisure activities, starting up Chiang Mai Modelling and working in the fashion industry, “my job can be quite depressing of late, so I need to brighten it up with my fashion and culture stuff.”
A few years ago Ben also discovered remains of an old temple on his land in Mae Rim. “In fact, I came to see your father and showed him some shards I found there, which he dated at round 700 years old. Scientific tests have confirmed what your father said, the site spanned 200 years and often Silapakorn brings in students for me to teach. I now spend two hours every morning, before I start work at 10, excavating. My labs and I also like to hike in the mountains on weekends and when I can, I love to ski, mainly in Japan. Recently I have developed a great fascination for Japanese culture and am currently learning Japanese. The draw is its sensitivity to feelings of others; its poetry, depth, and religious arts are so zen, but yet there can be such aggression. The ying yang factor intrigues me – the samurai warrior who will sit under a cherry tree and write haiku.”
Ben admits that while his mannerisms are British and he has been culturalised as a Brit, being a so called elite from both sides of the family means that he doesn’t quite fit in in either country. “I don’t drink lager in a pub, nor do I watch football. But being a social worker, I don’t feel disconnected because in my job I have to sit down and talk to people from all walks of life.”