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Danish Ambassador helps promoting the work of AIP Foundation :: ทูตเดนมาร์คประจำประเทศไทยช่วยโปรโมตงานมูลนิธิฯ

9 February 2012

He roams the streets of Bangkok and suburbs on his 3,000-horsepower motorbike. While posted in Vietnam he formed a rock band with himself as the guitarist. He was ambassador to Iraq for two years before moving to Bangkok last year. Mikael Hemniti Winther, Denmark's point man in Thailand, has a lifestyle that few would expect of a high-ranking diplomat.

Graduating from business school in 1983, he embarked on a trip of self discovery to Asia, and Thailand was his first destination.



 

"I was 23. I took a year's break and spent six months travelling," the ambassador recalled his decision to become a backpacker.

"I always have a need to do something different with my life, not just leading and getting very narrow-minded. It was a chance to get away from the old things," he added.

"Faith has driven me here," he said of his journey to Thailand and fell in love with it and its people. He later married a Thai-Canadian activist, Rattanawadee, whom he met some 15 years ago.

His witnessing of Southeast Asia's economic struggle during the trip triggered his interest in international development and his life has since been involved in the foreign service.

In this interview, we touched on his unconventional lifestyle and a campaign he is now working on with his wife to promote safe driving in Thailand and Cambodia.

This Tuesday, he will launch a "GO4 Charity Ride" from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. The six-day ride is to raise awareness about road safety in Thailand and Cambodia and also to raise funds to support educational training and provide helmets to a school in Cambodia.

He also talks about the changing role of ambassadors and how he tries not to get carried away with the title.

I've heard that you play the guitar.

Yes, I do. Back in Vietnam, I had a band named the Deputies. We played the original material I wrote and covers of Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Coldplay and other different bands.

It's a good thing, when you have a job where there are a lot of office functions. It's a way of getting out. It's almost like meditation, and de-stressing; thinking about nothing but focusing on playing music.

Here in Bangkok, I played a few times with Thai bands at an ambassador's goodbye party and a Christmas brunch of the Danish Chamber of Commerce. They would have a band playing, so I just picked up the guitar and played two to three songs with them.

What was the audience's response?

People liked it. I'm not a professional musician but they are surprised _ plaek-jai _ because people don't expect that. I get a lot of credit for the surprise. Thai musicians are very good. I enjoyed playing with them because they are solid musicians. When you have a band that plays well, they can make you sound good too.

Let's talk about your passion for motorbikes.

I had my first motorbike when I was a young man. I worked for the United Nations in the Philippines for two years. I had a motorbike there and realised that Asian countries are in a good climate for motorbike riding. In Denmark, I had a motorbike for a year but I sold it because it's too cold and too rainy.

For me, [biking] is a hobby and a way to connect with people. It's not just riding, but I also get closer to people than when I drive in my car. As an ambassador, I meet people from high government levels, diplomats and business people. If I want to be somebody who also knows normal people, I can go to Phra Pradaeng, Pathum Thani or Nonthaburi by bike. I can go out on the smaller roads. I can stop at a cafe or a restaurant and I can speak to people.

Do you have a better understanding of the Thai society after having ridden around?

I think there is a curiosity. My feeling about people when riding is that they are curious when they see a farang on the big bike. The men always come up and say, tao-rai?, not how many CCs the bike is, but how much money I paid for it. Thai people like to know the price of things. When people are curious, it's easier to speak to them.

Do you experience any difficulties on the road?

There was one time when I almost got into trouble with my bike. It was in the rainy season in Rangsit. I always go out on smaller roads, dirt roads. I came in to a place where it got very narrow _ the small concrete road along the khlong (canal). You can only walk, or go by small motorbikes or bicycles. I wanted to turn around but there was this sand and mud, and my bike was like 20kg heavy. I almost got stuck. I could not get out and there were no people there. I managed to get out but my shoes were covered with mud, and I could have fallen down. It was quite unpleasant. But I haven't experienced anything bad or an accident yet.

What did your wife say after seeing you coming home wet and all?

She was really worried. She said, 'What are you doing? Don't go out into small local areas. Stick to the road.' She doesn't have the same interest as me in that sense.

Is she still worried?

She gets worried because she knows that Thailand has the highest number of traffic accidents in Asia (60% from the motorbike accidents). My wife is actually the country director for the Asian Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, a non-profit organisation that promotes the use of helmet on the motorbike and road safety campaigns.

AIP Foundation also works with the Department for Disaster Prevention and Mitigation. They just signed the MoU to try to do more. Because it is not only about wearing helmet, there are a lot of other things like obeying the traffic rules, not drinking. And cars also need to be aware of the motorbikes.

She works with that, her daily routine, and she knows I'm out there on the bike. So she gets worried. But she knows I'm experienced and I always use the helmet.

Can you tell us more about the GO4 Charity Ride campaign?

It is a charity ride to raise awareness about road safety in Thailand and Cambodia. We will raise funds to support the educational training and provide helmets to a school in Cambodia. The charity ride starts on February 14 to 19 from Bangkok all the way to Phnom Penh. We'll also donate some money to AIP Foundation in Cambodia. I will be riding my motorbike along with other 12 riders.

It's one of the issues we see on newspapers all the time but I haven't seen any major campaigns about it. They have this one '100% helmet' campaign. For me, it's a little ineffective because you just say '100%.' What does it mean to you? Maybe you wear it but it is not 100% if your neighbours don't wear it. So I think something more needs to be done. That's why I'm interested in it.

Your personality resembles that of a rock star _ playing guitar and riding a big bike. Are people surprised when they know about it?

Yes, they are surprised. But most people are positive. I think the role of ambassador is changing. In the old days, ambassadors were very 'hi-so.' They lived in big houses and their job was to talk to the high-ranking government or business people. But for me and for my service for Denmark, it is not good enough anymore. You cannot isolate the people, because then you become irrelevant.

My job is to promote Denmark in Thailand. Of course I need to do that by understanding Thailand, so I can communicate with my government what Thailand is. But if I only speak to the government, I cannot explain what is going on because they can read everything on the Internet or in newspapers.

I try to play guitar and all that. They are my own personality and my hobbies that I use to make people interested in me. 'Oh this guy plays guitar, let's talk to him, he's probably a fun guy or a nice guy.' That makes it easy for me to talk to people. And I want to tell stories about it because it helps me promote the value that Denmark has. We promote the way that people are not that different, the issues about equality, democracy and human rights. It's also about reaching out to people.

Having a connection between a government reduces the differences between the layers in society. So when I tell people that I play guitar, and it's unusual for an ambassador to play a rock guitar. It comes with a little bit of a story.

And it is also because the generation is changing. My generation listened to rock music. Most of the colleagues I played for two weeks ago _ about 15 ambassadors _ came over and said, 'Great music'. You think ambassadors would listen to classical music or opera or jazz. But the ambassadors, they are my age or older, and of course they listen to rock music. They listen to [Bruce] Springsteen. This is what we're listening to. This is our generation.

It seems your life has played out nicely, it's been rather fun. Up until now, you're still doing what you love, and maintaining an important position in the government. What is your motto in life?

I think about trying to keep myself. Because as an ambassador you play a role. People are seeing you as an ambassador for everybody. You're hardly Mikael anymore. Everybody calls me Mr Ambassador and they speak about me as an ambassador. So you lose your personality.

I've been trying to say to myself, don't lose yourself. Keep friends from the old times who can remind you of who you are. So you don't get carried away. Don't be taken in by all this prestige and admiration. People are bowing and say, Than thoot krub [your excellency]. You have to keep your feet on the ground. You have to ask your wife to keep you grounded. Sometimes if I go to a hotel where the service is a little bit slow, I can almost hear myself thinking, 'Don't you know who I am?' Then I say to myself: 'You're not different from anybody else; stand in the queue!'

So my motto is trying to keep yourself and don't let yourself get carried away with this job. Do it professionally and look at it as a fun and challenging job.

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