Denmark’s embassy in Thailand has over the last ten years been marred by the construction of several ugly anti-terror protection measures. I suggest we tear down these useless arrangements and open the Embassy compound for picnics!
Ten years ago, visiting the Danish Embassy was a pleasant experience. Entering from Soi Attakarnprasit there was an unobstructed view to the magnificent old trees, to the Little Mermaid in the pond in front of the chancery and behind it you could see the Ambassador’s residence. The office building, ‘Main Entrance’, was on your right hand, under the colonnade. When you walked through the always open iron gates in the yellow brick wall, a friendly guard would rise from his light slumber and salute you.
In September 2005 the Muhammad cartoons controversy occurred. A Danish newspaper had published 12 cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad and although the newspaper explained the publication as an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship, the cartoons created a rage in the Islamic world.
In Bangkok, a demonstration was arranged on February 6, 2006 in front of the Danish Embassy in Bangkok. Two years later, in March 2008, another demonstration was also staged there, protesting a reprint of some of the cartoons.
A line of policemen confronted the demonstrators with their back against the embassy gate which was at this point still the open iron bar gate with a view to embassy buildings inside.
Meanwhile Ambassador Michael Sternberg showed sound judgment and leadership. He went out on the street alone to talk to the demonstrators, but after a while he went back in.
“They were not interested in speaking to me, they just wanted to read their statements and to praise Allah,” the ambassador said. Nevertheless, he defused a tense situation and that was more useful than any wall -easily climbed by as bamboo ladder. Unfortunately you can in general neither expect courage nor common sense among the civil servants in the Foreign Ministry. If you read their travel warnings you have the impression that the bureaucrats in charge are afraid of their own shadow.
Right wing swing in 2008
Four months later, a suicide bomb attack on 2 June 2008 against the Royal Danish Embassy in Pakistan killed six people and wounded several more. Two of the victims were Danish embassy staff.
From a cool point of view, this was an isolated case, but that year, fear and paranoia gripped the Danish government and administration. The government entered a strategic agreement with a right wing political party in Denmark, which among other things included setting aside a budget of 26 million kroner for securing the Danish Embassies against terror attacks.
The fortification of Danish embassies around the world has been designed by the foreign ministry in consultation with the Danish National Intelligence Service. It is supposed to be a graduated response modeled differently according to the perception of threat in each location.
In Bangkok, the old gate has been replaced with a solid metal gate at least 2.20 meters tall and with spikes on top. In the door to the right of the gate there is a small trapdoor. A man from inside will ask you what you want, whether you have an appointment – and if that can be confirmed you will eventually be let in. Many will notice an innocent looking lamp that in fact contains a hidden surveillance camera.
Once inside there is a sort of sluice where you see three doors on the side of the building. One leads into a room for visa applications, although the bulk of that work has since been privatized, the second leads into a ‘Citizen Service Office’. That is where you get e.g. authorized letters to Thai authorizes stating domicile, income, etc. This is also where passports are dealt with. All transactions take place on either side of a thick glass wall with an intercom and a shuttle drawer for exchange of documents and money. Behind the third door you can relieve yourself and wash your hands.
At the farthest end of the sluice there is one more gate which has presumable been erected to prevent visitors from walking unhindered to the sign-posted ‘Main Entrance’. This gate is made of galvanized metal mesh and although it does allow the visitor a glimpse of the little ‘Garden of Eden’, the ‘Main Entrance’ and the ambassador’s residence it is from an aesthetic point of view rather ugly.
Along with the hostile fortification of the embassy a change in attitude has also taken place. When ScandAsia asked for permission to take photos of and from the embassy, we were given permission but only after some hesitation. And on occasion we were followed by an embassy representative wherever we walked in the peaceful area of exotic trees and plants, instructing us where we could and where we could not take photos, although no sophisticated electronic equipment or other hardware seemed to be hiding behind the bougainvilleas.
This ‘no-go’ even included the galvanized steel gate and the public street outside the embassy with the innocent looking camera house. Before we left the embassy grounds all the photos in the camera were furthermore examined, accepted or deleted although the shots had been taken under very close supervision.
The whole affair gave me this feeling of ‘Big brother is watching you’ paranoia, as so chillingly described in George Orwell’s: ‘1984’. Believe me, earlier, visiting Danes loved to see the Embassy and felt proud that we could maintain such a place as our representation in a far away country.
An open flank
The shepherded tour was also a bit hilarious. From the towering high rises very nearby, you have an excellent and most detailed view of the whole plot and even from your home you can get detailed knowledge of the situation plan via Google Earth.
The bombastic and ugly fortification of the front of the embassy is furthermore just put up for show. From the South/Eastern side of the embassy, there is almost unhindered access to the Ambassador’s garden behind the residence. The bush grass on the neighboring empty plot could give cover to a whole squadron of men with ill intentions. The view of the embassy with buildings, windows and trees is completely open from there and even from the little public Soi by the end of this neighboring plot. This because the buildings are facing that direction, South/East. The fence marking the border of the plot is not higher than 1 meter, mostly just old wire and poles. Shouldn’t there here be a wall, 2.30 meters high and with broken glass on top?
Stop the paranoia
I personally beg to differ. I would regard the Danish Embassy as belonging to a very low security risk category regarding violent attacks. To me, the whole arrangement of front wall, solid gate, spikes, photo control and surveillance cameras is bureaucratic and paranoid, it cannot protect anything: ‘The Emperors new Clothes’, it should be demolished and the Embassy Park opened for picnics! Furthermore, recognizing the ‘Arabian Spring’ and the most successful NATO assistance to the Libyan freedom fighters, it would be fair to say that the ‘climate’ is changing.
On Champs-Elysees in Paris you find The Danish House, ‘Maison Danemark’. It has been there since 1955. A bright, courageous and offensive decision back then. A new such house has just been inaugurated in Shanghai.
EU and the speed of IT communication has changed the role and the time for a traditional embassy, so why not create a house for trade and cultural exchange, music, literature, theatre out of the embassy compound?