Chiang Mai Citylife sat down for an interview with United States Consulate General, Lisa Buzenas, at the Consulate General’s residence on the 28th of March.
We discussed Thai-United States partnership, geopolitical concerns, business opportunities, and the consul general’s hopes and ambitions for her term in Chiang Mai. American Citizens abroad and Thai citizens may learn more about the United States Consul by attending town hall meetings and other scheduled provincial events in which the Consulate General will be in attendance. You may also follow the Consulate on all major social media platforms for more information about the partnership and upcoming activities.
The following is the transcript of the meeting.
Q: How long have you been here?
A: So I’ve been here now 7 1/2 months, and it’s been absolutely amazing. My son and I are thrilled to be back in Thailand, and we lived here from 2009 to 2011. I absolutely love this country. I’m so happy to be back.
Q: What have been your priorities since you’ve arrived?
A: I can answer this in two parts professionally and personally and professionally. The United States, where we’re cooperating with Thailand in so many different areas. You might have heard that this year we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of USA-Thai democratic relations. Thailand is America’s oldest partner in the pacific. It’s wonderful for us to celebrate the ties that we have had over the last 190 years since we signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1833. The United States and Thailand are cooperating in many different areas: on health cooperation, we’re Thailand’s largest export market for Thai goods, and we actually just grew our trade relationship by close to 25% just last year to $75 billion in two way trade, and we’re expecting that to continue on to grow and then in the coming years.
Additionally, Thailand is one of our non-NATO Treaty allies. We’re very proud of that and we do a lot of training together in Disaster Risk Reduction with the Thai military. I mentioned health and agricultural technology, we’re doing so many different things in education and education exchange – just like with the Fulbright programme here. We’re celebrating the entire relationship the entire year of 2023. And each month we have a different thing that we’re celebrating in a different area of cooperation. So my goal for my three years in Thailand is to show the breadth and the depth of the US type partnership to people in northern Thailand and also to grow that partnership in the years to come.
Q: What are your personal goals since coming to Thailand?
A: I’m just happy to be back here. I absolutely love Thai food. I love Thai people. I love the climate and getting out and meeting more people across northern Thailand. It’s just been absolutely wonderful.
Q: So what are the challenges post-covid?
A: One thing that struck me since arriving is that there were a number of businesses that have shuttered throughout northern Thailand due to the pandemic and being closed for 2.5 years. I know that 18% of Thailand’s GDP is due to tourism. I imagine it’s probably even higher up in the north where you don’t have as much manufacturing because you don’t have the transportation of waterways and infrastructure like you do in central and South. So it’s been quite eye opening that there’s been so many businesses that have closed down.
This has been one of my priorities – and one of the US government’s priorities – is to help the economic development of Thailand, and specifically in northern Thailand for me personally.
There are many ways that we’re helping Thailand recover from COVID outside of the health cooperation. On the economic side, we have something called the Indo-Pacific Economic framework. This is an agreement that President Biden announced in May 2022; he launched it with thirteen other countries, and Thailand is one of them. Within this economic framework, they’re negotiations ongoing for the four pillars of clean economy, fair economy, supply chain, and trade. We also have a number of U.S. companies – 14 companies – that are participating as a part of a public-private partnership. And the great thing about this is that with us in the North, these companies have committed to train over 500,000 people in eight countries, including Thailand, in the next 10 years on upskilling and science and technology.
For instance, just a few months ago, I participated in Amazon’s first ever event in northern Thailand, where they train more than 400 people in person and 5,000 online on how to upskill local artisans. This is selling Lampung ceramics, selling Thai silks and handicrafts to get it onto Amazon’s platforms to sell to the United States, Europe, and other places. We are working with Google, IBM, Dell…there are a number of companies that are now looking at not only people around Thailand, but specific to helping upskill people in northern Thailand to be able to to develop entrepreneurship activities.
Amazon is looking to invest in northern Thailand in a big way, as you know the people who sell on Amazon, which is one of the largest e-commerce platforms in the world, are small and medium size businesses – specifically entrepreneurs. Amazon is helping to get their products onto Amazon’s platforms. So that’s one example. Google has something called the Google certificate. They’re training 22,000 people I know just in this first cohort this year, for instance, training women entrepreneurs how to code.That’s especially important for women entrepreneurs and just women in northern Thailand, so that they can then get good paying jobs and companies throughout the country.
President Biden launched this in May 2022. There are 14 companies from the United States participating. Companies like Amazon, Dell, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, PayPal, Visa, MasterCard,…all these big names, and they’ve all committed to training at least 500,000 people over 10 years.
Q: What are the businesses doing in Northern Thailand?A: I was surprised that we don’t have more American investment in northern Thailand and that’s something that I’d like to pursue to change. I think that is because a lot of them are in Bangkok. But there are American businesses up here, so in addition to trying to work with these companies I just mentioned through the Indo Pacific Economic framework, there are companies that have been working up in northern Thailand for decades. For instance, just a few weeks ago, I went to one of PepsiCo’s potato contract farms. They’re training more than 4,000 contract potato farmers to grow potatoes for their potato chips. And the great thing is, just like other American companies, PepsiCo utilizes smart technology and trains people into smart technologies. For instance, their potato farms have drip irrigation. So the idea is that the water goes into the soil directly with the fertilizer. So you have less evaporation. You also conserve more water. They use drone technology. They also use solar cells, so you’re not using diesel, and it’s not causing any pollution.
One thing I thought that was very interesting is that not only through these measures does PepsiCo actually increase the yields of these crops, which means that the farmers get more profit. But because potatoes have one crop harvest a year, these farmers then also plant corn and rice. And they train them not to burn the corn and rice husks; they train them how to compost all of these, and they cover right now about 30,000 rye that PepsiCo contracts out. So there is no burning on any of Pepsico’s farms!
And what’s even greater is that they’re looking to double production in the next five years. And they told me that 15% of their production now goes to exports across Asia, and they’re looking to grow that market. So not only selling within Thailand, but also helping Thailand export to other countries.
Q: What is the United States doing about the burning issue?
A: We work with NARIT, the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand to give special geospatial technology to detect hotspots burning hot spots across Thailand. We were also able to see hot spots in neighboring countries as well. We’re also working with Chiang Mai university to do research on air quality. We have a State Department air quality fellow that is designated just for Thailand. We are helping to get everyone on the same page so that we can help make a comprehensive solution.
We have something called the Clean Air Act in the United States, and I know that Thailand actually has some legislation that they’re looking at now for something similar. So hopefully, you know, we’ll get there together.
Q: What is the situation with drug trafficking in Northern Thailand?
We actually do have a Drug Enforcement Administration office here. I think you probably are well aware they’ve been here since 1973 working hand in hand with my counterparts in the Royal Thai police. Since there’s been so much conflict going on in Burma that is pushing even more meth and more heroin across the border. They make sure that drugs don’t come across the border, that they’re not getting into the hands of young children in Thailand, and that we both protect the people of Thailand but also people back home.
Q: What can you tell us about the new consulate?
A: We’re building a new consulate building. It’s gonna be a diplomatic space, and we are still building it and we’re very happy that we’re on track right now to be able to open it next summer in 2024. As you can imagine with the US government, we have to plan for many years in advance. So this has been on the docket for a number of years.We do so much cooperation with Thailand, we just need more space to work with the offices.
For example, we work with the Armed Forces Research Information Medical Sciences Office with the Ministry of Health and Public Health. They had developed the first vaccine to prevent the spread of HIV AIDS in 2010 in their office in Bangkok. We also have been developing vaccines to prevent the spread of malaria. We’re developing COVID vaccines here as well. I think a lot of people don’t know how large it is and how extensive it is. We also have a lot of the development assistance, a lot of the Disaster Risk Reduction and mentioned that at least our military is working on; we also have a large USAID office here in Thailand as well. They help with humanitarian assistance, like Cobra Gold.
So just to say that, as you can see, we love our consulate, but this space was never meant to be. It’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful historical location. We’ve been here since 1950, so it’s been 73 years and it’s absolutely gorgeous. I am very honored and very happy that I get to call this beautiful building my home. But this was never meant to be an office building, and so we’re moving to a proper office building that is going to be LEED Silver certified. Not only is it a platform for us to be able to do our work in a safe and clean environment, but we’re also training hundreds of construction workers on the latest technologies in construction. So we have 500 construction workers working on site every day, 90% of them are Thai and half of them are women. After they’re finished constructing our site, they can go off and construct other buildings and other projects within Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, to the same level of standard.The budget is $284 million, so much smaller than that speculated amount.
Q: What offices will be there?
A: We’re not adding any additional offices. We will add a couple of extra staff here and there to be able to take care of this new building, but that’s all.
Q: What services do you offer the expats living here?
A: Visa services have increased 50% in American citizen services, have increased 50% year overnight, 2019 levels over pre pandemic levels. It’s more in demand. This new building that we’re moving into is going to have a proper indoor waiting room with 7 interviewing windows.
Q: What can you tell us about digital nomads?
A: I understand that Americans make up the largest percentage of digital nomads in Chiang Mai, which is great. They came and brought their skills here, which is good for the Thai economy and specifically for Chiang Mai. Not just hotels and coworking spaces and coffee shops, but also the kinds of skills that they bring and then possibly as they grow their own businesses, hiring more people and training more people as well. I do know that the Thai immigration Department has just recently released details about a digital nomad visa trying to attract more digital nomads. We should know more about it soon.
Q: What is the status of Thai-US Tourism?
A: It’s quite exciting! We’ve actually seen them start coming back. So pre pandemic, we had about 17,000 Americans living in northern Thailand. It dipped to about 7-8 thousand during the pandemic. We just got numbers in the last week that they’ve rebounded at least to 21,000. Any given year, we have about 175,000 Americans either living in or visiting northern Thailand.
The Consulate is also excited to promote Thailand as a festival tourism country, and participates in the festivals with floats and in the opening ceremonies. We are doing more this year because it is our 190th anniversary. I look forward to participating more.
Q: How is your personal life in Thailand?
A: I absolutely love living in Chiang Mai. My son is enjoying his school. He’s made a lot of friends. We travel on the weekends: We’ve been to the zoo, several of the provinces, and we love getting to cook Thai food. We also love elephants, so we’ve gone to the Elephant nature park here a couple of times to feed the elephants and bathe the elephants, which is lovely. We’re very much into preserving the environment, so also going into the nature parks and going hiking. It’s been wonderful and there’s still so much more to see.
Q: What would be your passion project in the next three years?
A: Well, I mentioned that economic development is a big priority for me. I’d like to see that grow. We’re kind of just getting started and doing a lot of things together. I would like to see even more of those American companies not only do kind of corporate social responsibility programmes up here, but actually doing more investing; I would like to see more American companies partner with more Thai companies, I want to see more Thai entrepreneurs be able to launch their own companies and really see the vibrancy of northern Thailand kind of fully recovered from COVID. That’s what I’m hoping to see in the next couple of years.
Transcription by Lauren Reuss