Citylife – On August 4th, Jennifer Harhigh was appointed the new United States Consul General for Chiang Mai. Her job is to lead the consultant office, which is US government presence in northern Thailand. As a new intern at Citylife and an American from Indiana, I walked across the bridge in hopes of making an appointment for an interview and was surprised to have managed to catch her for half an hour between meetings.
Citylife: What was your Interest taking this position here in Chiang Mai?
This is a job that I always wanted to do. I studied as an exchange student in Thailand as a college student in 1992 at Assumption University in Bangkok. I studied there for 6 months and fell in love with Thailand, Thai people, and Thai culture. Several years later, after I finished college I went in the Peace Corps and then after Peace Corps I went to graduate school. And then I entered the Foreign Service and when I entered the Foreign Service, I was lucky enough that Thailand was on my list of available positions for my first tour. I was happily able to come to Bangkok and serve as a counselor and economic officer from 1999-2001. When I was in Bangkok I had an opportunity to come here to Northern Thailand. I certainly travelled as a student here as well. And subsequently I worked in Burma for three years from 2008-2011. And I had further opportunity to travel here to Chiang Mai because…a lot of the Burmese groups are based here or had been based here in Chiang Mai. And there’s a fair amount of support for the refugees here in northern Thailand. And on every occasion I visited I dreamed of working here some day and several years ago I put in a bid on the position and I am very happy to say it all worked out.
Citylife: What have you enjoyed most about your stay so far in Chiang Mai? Favourite food, favourite place?
The thing I have enjoyed most is the fact that I am here now with three children. First time I was here I was student, by myself. The second time I was as a Foreign Service officer with my husband. And now the third time, I have our three kids and it’s been so fun to take them around to different places here in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand and to see their faces as they try Thai food and meet Thai people, so that’s been fun. So favourite food, there are so many it’s hard to count, but I think the khao soy here in Chiang Mai is very good. But probably my favourite is the morning glory, pad pak boon fai daeng, and also yum som-o (which is the pomelo salad).
And we’ve been visiting a lot of places…I’ve only been here a little over a month but we’ve taken the kids over to Mai Rim where there is the Elephant Poopoopaper Park. We had a fantastic visit there, we have friends in town now with their three children, and so we took both families out there. First of all it was just naturally gorgeous, you know the setting is superb. Second of all it was a neat place for the kids to visit because it talked about the importance of conservation, and recycling, and protecting the environment. And thirdly I thought the invocation was just great, because it’s just such a clever idea to recycle waste into usable products…We visited the Mae Ngat Dam, there’s a reservoir, we’ve been out there swimming, I’ve been kayaking on the Mae Wang River with some friends. The difference with Bangkok, I thoroughly enjoy it, but this is so nice because nature is right outside your doorstep. You don’t have to drive very far. You’ve got absolutely stunning natural beauty with wonderful rivers. A few weeks ago we went to Doi Ang Kam, there’s a royal project to grow temperate fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, and that was up in the mountains and absolutely breathtaking. And that project was something the US government assisted with. It’s a royal project with the participation of the US government and it was helping to give other crops people can grow instead of opium. It was so short I would love to go back with the family up there. It was just the most peaceful beautiful place. The fact that you can just drive right outside of town, just half hour or two to three hours and just get out there in nature, is something I just love.
Citylife: What would you like to accomplish or project you would like to start?
First and foremost, our consulate is here to ensure that the American citizens who visit here, or live or travel here are supported and that’s our key mission. We have several thousand Americans who call Northern Thailand their home. Some of them have been here for many years, they came here years ago maybe got married to Thai nationals, many of them came as missionaries, many of them came for business, and there are still more people coming. Some people come obviously just to travel, others are entrepreneurs working on small businesses, and so we provide consular services here, American citizen services here. That may include a report of birth abroad, if someone has a baby here. It may include support for any American that is arrested here, passes away here. It can include something as simple as a notarial service, you need to renew your state permit, your visa here in Thailand, the consular section can help with the routine notaries. And of course we do nonimmigrant visas here so Thai citizens who want to work or travel to the United States, to travel to, work in or study in the United States, they can come and apply for a nonimmigrant visa here. So the consular services are our top priority. We can also assist citizens with voting in this coming election. (For details, see link below.)
We also have a lot of government to government cooperation efforts that have gone back for decades. We combat trafficking in persons, wildlife trafficking, illicit narcotics, drugs together with the Thai government. And so up here in Northern Thailand, we continue that partnership. We’ve got a lot of good work accomplished on that front.
We certainly encourage Thai young people to study in the United States, travel to the United States. We have an active Education USA programme here to help inform students of the opportunities available to them. We also have a number of useful exchange programmes. We have something called the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative. President Obama was just in Laos and he met with a group of people who were involved with the YSEALI programme and a number of them were from Northern Thailand. And it was really cool because I got to talk with some of them when they got back and they talked about their experience with meeting the president. And we just had an orientation last week for a few new participants who are about to leave for the US to go and live in a community for a short period of time and learn about business, environmental protection, a number of areas.
Naturally we are also monitoring what is going on here in Thailand because the US and Thailand have been allies for over 180 years, we been friends with Thailand for years, friends with the people of Thailand for years, and so we’re taking a keen interest in the current political situation and following what’s going on there. People from our embassy in Bangkok and here often meet with Thai government officials and members of Thai civil society and continue the discussion about the importance of elected government and respect for freedom of expression, and human rights.
In regards to the helping the freedom of speech/expression and human rights situation, what can we [the Consulate] do to help?
Ultimately this is something for the Thai government to deal with. We’re just looking for Thailand to uphold their international commitments. The Thai government has made a number of international commitments to uphold standards. We remind them of international commitments, but this is something best addressed to the Thai government.
Citylife: Do you expect obstacles to occur with the continuing programs between the US and Thailand?
I think not really. Our friendship is so long and so deep that I have a positive sense of the future. In the health field, a lot of this cooperation may be run out of our embassy in Bangkok but we’ve been partnering with the Thais on disease research for many many years. There’s just so many areas in which we cooperate and we have for so very long that I think I have a positive assessment of where we’re headed in the future. I think that the people of Thailand know the United States is a good friend, and the US knows that Thailand is an ally and a partner. Thailand is in a strategic position here in Southeast Asia. We naturally follow the political situation here, as part of our job we also follow the economic situation, see what happening with the economy.
But I think that the important thing that might be the real challenge, is to make sure that the young people know about our relationship and are aware of all the opportunities that it offers to them and they are aware of all the really amazing history between our two counties. There have been some Americans here who have been here for many decades, and so they know a lot of the history and they are aware of this but you get the younger people, that’s where the real opportunity lies, just trying to make sure that they are aware. It’s fun for me to research the history. I went to [Payap University Archives]… they have some of the original documents from some of the first Americans who were in Thailand, including the handwritten notes from Rev. Stephen Mattoon who was a missionary here but also the first consul…If you have a chance I recommend getting over there. I think it just important for the young people to know about this history, the many threads of our cultures that are sewn together.
For more information about voting in this coming election, please visit: https://www.fvap.gov