Mikael H. Winther and his wife Ratanawadee (or Ratana as her husband calls her) enjoy their new posting as the new Ambassador of Denmark to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
“No, happy is not the right word… I am extraordinarily happy!” Mikael laughs.
The fact that Thailand is Ratana’s home country is of course part of the joy. But it goes a lot deeper than that.
“Thailand was the first country in Asia I visited as a young backpacker,” Mikael says.
“I had never been to Asia before so Thailand was my first experience and it made a lasting impression on me. Later, my first posting abroad was at the UNIDO/UNDP office in the Philippines and it was like a confirmation for me: Asia is my place to be!”
“Thailand has always been my top first priority if ever I should become an Ambassador. But in the beginning I didn’t think much about it. First I would have to become an Ambassador – that was a big enough dream in itself! But now that I am, returning to Thailand became our dream posting.”
Second time here
Mikael Winther’s first posting to Thailand was as First Secretary in 1995 to 1998. Prior to that posting, he had a course in Thai language, which turned out to be useful.
“The Thais seemed happy that I could speak some Thai and that encouraged me to take more intensive courses. People joke that I learned Thai from Ratana, but I was taking classes in Thai and could already speak some Thai when we first met.”
So, how did the Ambassador and his wife meet?
“I was single and I really enjoyed being a bachelor at that time,” Mikael recalls in his broad Broendby English.
“One of my friends worked at the Australian Embassy and I asked him to hook me up with some beautiful girls. So he booked a table for us at the Australian Annual Ball at Intercontinental. It must have been the summer of 1996.”
It turned out, that Ratana was not the beautiful woman, that his friend had in mind.
“I was just invited to fill up the table,” Khun Ratana laughs.
Ratana had come back to Thailand as part of the Thai government’s efforts at that time to ask well educated Thais abroad to come home and work a few years for their country. “Reversing the brain drain” was the buzz word.
“I had been abroad for a long time then. I was only sixteen when I moved to study in the US. Since then, I had only briefly been back to take my Bachelor degree at Thammasat University. And after that I had moved to Canada and went further with my studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.”
At the time of the “brain drain” campaign, Khun Ratana was working as head of a large language education and training project at the Toronto Board of Education in Ontario, Canada. That was when she was approached by the Vice Rector at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce at the time who asked her if she would teach a graduate course..
“They liked it and so I was asked to teach one more course,” she says.
“But since graduate degree programs at the Department I was teaching were all held in the evening, I started to look for something to do in the daytime. That was how I got to be the manager of the newly established International Education Center at the Australian Embassy. One day, my colleague asked me if I would join the Australian National Ball…”
The romantic stalker
At this point, Mikael’s recollection of what happened that time and what Ratana’s recalls are slightly different. Ratana remembers that Mikael flirted heavily with all the girls at the table the whole night through. Mikael insists that from the moment that Ratana arrived and sat down next to him, he completely ignored the one he was supposed to meet and only had eyes for Ratana.
However, they both agree what followed next. Mikael kept calling her all the time at the Australian Embassy and tried to invite her out.
“Finally, I polished my big chopper and put on dark sunglasses and drove over and invited her out for a ride. I was simply irresistible,” Mikael recalls.
“I was a bit persistent, maybe you could say I was exploring this thin borderline between stalking and courting…” Mikael suggests.
Here is Ratana’s version:
“Well, I told my colleagues that if this Danish playboy diplomat ever called again, “Tell him I’m not in!””.
“But then eventually I thought, “OK, I will marry him. At least that will make him stop calling me!” Ratana finishes off the romantic tale, proving that Mikael is certainly not the only one who has a well developed sense of humour.
Moving to Denmark
Following Mikael to Denmark was, however not an easy decision.
“Initially, I just took leave of absence from my job in Toronto. It was a difficult decision. I felt I was achieving something there,” she says.
“In Denmark I started in a job at Vejdirektoratet – the Danish Highway Department – in their international education department. Later I moved to work with Carl Bro.”
That turned out to be a wise decision. When Mikael was posted to Vietnam in 2001 to 2005 as Deputy Head of Mission at the Danish Embassy in Hanoi, Ratana managed to get posted there herself for Carl Bro as a HRD consultant in the water sector.
“It was a good time for both of us,” she says.
Back in Denmark Khun Ratana continued working at Carl Bro for two years. Then she moved to work with another consulting company, Consia to develop their international educational and HRD program.
“I like Denmark. I like the flat organizations, the efficiency of the workplace. You get to do a lot. And I love bicycling in Denmark. Mikael forced me and eventually I gave in. Now I wonder why it took him so long to push me to try it.”
Looking for a job
In 2008, when Mikael was appointed Danish Ambassador to Iraq, Ratana kept her position at Consia. But now that they have moved to Bangkok she has left the company and will start in a new job as Country Director for an American based NGO in Thailand on 1 February 2011.
“This NGO advocates Road Safety. Thailand needs this and I believe I can contribute something important here,” she says.
“But it will only be half time. As for my other job as the Ambassador’s wife, I have already promised to continue the commitment with the Red Cross Bazaar, which has somehow become a tradition for the Danish Ambassadors wife to be involved with.”
“Apart from that, I am looking forward to meet my friends again. And being back with my Mum is also wonderful. She is so happy that we are here; she loves Mikael,” Khun Ratana says
The good Ambassador
As the Ambassador of Denmark to Thailand, Mikael H. Winther – the H. stands for Hemniti – has plans of his own.
“I belong in the Ministry to a generation of ambassadors who see ourselves very much as managers. An ambassador has two different roles. One is the traditional role to represent Denmark. The other is to be managers of the people that we work with at the station. Good management is something we emphasize a lot,” he explains
“My vision is to be a good representative for Denmark in Thailand. The strong historical relationship that Denmark has with Thailand is a heavy burden to lift, but to fill in that role, to be that person, is important to me,” the Ambassador explains.
“But the other areas that we work with at the embassy, the consular work and the commercial work, is not less important,” he quickly adds.
“I want to be the ambassador for all these areas – not just the one with the high ranking contacts but also the ambassador who looks after the people here and who work with the business community. I look very much forward to participating in the activities of Dancham and I hope to visit many of the Danish companies here.”
“I want to increase the positive image of Denmark and the image of the embassy.”
Leader of the band
In his private life, he expects to continue being a rock musician, something that he has managed to do in all his previous postings.
“My electric guitars will arrive in February along with my brand new motorcycle, a Honda 700 Trans Alp,” he explains.
In Hanoi, Mikael formed a band with some colleagues from the other embassies and played in all the major clubs in front of quite big crowds.
“We even wrote our own songs there,” Mikael adds.
“In Baghdad I also formed a full scale rock band and we played several places. I also started doing some acoustic guitar there with a female singer,” he adds and attracts a watchful eye from Ratana.
“I have noticed that there is a piano here in the residence that I am looking forward to start playing. It needs some tuning, but piano was actually the first instrument I learned to play,” he says.
And there is more to the human side of the new boss:
“To me, sitting in a small Soi enjoying a bowl of Guidio nam, sen lek, with look chin (a noodle soup with thin noodles and fish balls) that is close to the essence of Bangkok. We also love going up country to visit friends.”
But being humble does not mean he and his wife are neo-Puritanics.
“Don’t get it wrong… We certainly know how to enjoy luxury too! Oh yes!” he laughs, then adding on a more reflective note:
“…but I never take it for granted. Like being posted here. You know, sometimes I wake up in the morning and I listen to the birds and then suddenly I feel deeply happy and thankful just for being alive in this wonderful place and in this wonderful job.”