It has been almost a year since Jennifer Harhigh was appointed the United States Consul General for Chiang Mai. We were curious as to what she has been working on during this time and thought it was time we sat down for a chat.
Citylife: Please tell us about how you came to be in the diplomatic service?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: When I first came to Thailand, I was a maths major at Loyola College in Maryland. At the time, Loyola College had just started a new study abroad programme in Thailand with ABAC (Assumption University). I knew I wanted to study abroad because I never had the opportunity to travel while I was growing up. So in June of 1992, I showed up as a student in Bangkok, where I spent six months doing a full semester of classes with Thai students. All of my classes were taught in English, but I took a Thai language course on the side and I had Thai friends, who helped me learn the language. The second time I came to Thailand, I had just started working at the state department in Washington, and I was lucky enough to be assigned to the embassy in Bangkok. It was my first posting and I came with my husband for two years from 1999 to 2001 working in the consular and economic section.
Citylife: How did you get into foreign affairs?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: After I finished the study abroad programme, I realised that I wanted to live overseas again. I finished my degree then joined the Peace Corps in Central African Republic for two years before being evacuated back to the United States because of political upheaval. During that whole process, I met several foreign service officers who inspired me to get into diplomacy. Which was what I did, I attended a graduate school for two years, where I received my master’s degree in foreign service. I was able to join the State Department straight after I graduated in 1998 and was soon off to Bangkok.
Citylife: Please give us a bit of an overview of the consulate and your responsibilities.
Con. Gen. Harhigh: The consulate opened in 1950 then was upgraded to consulate general in 1986. Currently, we have over 20 American and 80 Thai staff. Our primary mission is to provide services to American citizens living or travelling in Thailand. We cover the 15 northern provinces of Thailand and we estimate that about 16,000 Americans travel or reside in the north of Thailand on any given day, so we are here to support them should anything go wrong such as when they lose their passport and need to apply for a new one, if they have a baby here and have to register the baby as an American citizen (around four are registered at the consulate each week) and help arrange for their remains to be transported home when they pass away (around six deaths per month). Immigrant visas are still being handled in Bangkok, but we handle about 5,000 non-immigrant visas per year with about 80% being approved. We’ve been busy in the past few months with our summer work and travel programme where Thai students can go to the states.
Citylife: What else does the consulate general do?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: Aside from those things, we partner with our host government colleagues on a full range of issues. We monitor the political and economic situation here in Thailand. We look for opportunities for trade and investment. We’re responsible for our shared law enforcement priorities that deal with human trafficking and narcotics. A whole range of non-governmental organisations work with us to combat human trafficking. As for the narcotics issue, we have the DEA office here, at the consulate who work with their Thai counterparts in special investigative units to prevent drug trafficking.
Citylife: What is your role?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: I have a management role, so I manage people who work here and various agencies. I spend a fair amount of time on the road because I have 15 provinces to look after. An area that is personally very important to me is women’s empowerment. I am proud to say that a lot of our senior staff here are female because traditionally, the field of diplomacy has more males. It’s nice to see that over the years, there had been change regarding gender roles as well as more diversity in the foreign service. I’ve been working in this area for almost twenty years and I can see that diversity is increasing.
Citylife: What do you hope to achieve during your three years here?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: The United States and Thailand has had a long standing friendship for almost 200 years. For our partnership to be at its fullest, it is important to the U.S. for Thailand to return to civilian democratic governance. We’re hopeful that this political reconciliation process will be successful and that Thais will have the opportunity to elect a new government. We do strive to achieve this, we have frank discussions in private settings with Thai officials, and we do our best to promote democratic ideals and respect for human rights. We believe that people should have a say in who’s running their country, and that they understand the issues that matter most to them.
Citylife: There were rumours of the U.S. consulate moving locations. Is that true?
Con. Gen. Harhigh: Due to lack of space, we plan to construct a new consulate office building. We’re still only in the initial stages of planning. Although we’re going to have a new office building, we love this compound, and we’re still going to keep it as the consul general’s residence and for events, functions and meetings. The U.S. government has invested a lot of money over the years in taking care of this compound, preserving its characters and maintaining the place. It was the last residence of Prince Kaew Narawat, and there is a lot of historical legacy here.