A Historical Journey of a Special Friendship | สายสัมพันธ์ฉันมิตรไทย – สวิตเซอร์แลนด์

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The year 2021 is an auspicious occasion in the course of Thailand and Switzerland relations. The two countries will jointly celebrate the 90th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, which was established by the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce in 1931. Over the past 90 years, the two nations have enjoyed cordial ties derived from decades of close people-to-people connections. This article will take you through the historical journey of this special friendship, which spans beyond the establishment of the official diplomatic relations.

Early History of Relationship

Looking through the history, one can trace the earlier contacts between Thailand and Switzerland back to as early as the 17th century, when three Roman Catholic missionaries from the Canton of Fribourg left for Siam (former name of Thailand until 1939). Although no detailed accounts of such expeditions are available, evidence shows that in the 18th century, Siam became a known name in Switzerland, appearing in some dictionaries published in the Confederation. 

A strong foundation of the relationship was laid in the late 19th century during the reign of  the 5th king of the Chakri Dynasty or King Rama V (also known as King Chulalongkorn), the great grandfather of His Majesty King Rama X, the current king of Thailand. Both governments established official contacts then in the effort of Siam to modernise the country and increase its presence in the international arena. With the suggestion of Switzerland, Siam became a member of the Universal Postal Union and the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1885 and 1895, respectively.

The Pioneering Visit to Switzerland by King Rama V

The Thai – Swiss relations were further consolidated following the visit to Switzerland by   King Rama V in 1897, which was part of his first European tour. The King’s delegation was welcomed with full military honour in Bern by President Adolf Deucher, Federal Councillors, Bern Cantonal and Municipal authorities on 25 May 1897. A luncheon was also hosted in his honour at Hotel Bernerhof (building of the Federal Department of Finance today). King Rama V also visited Geneva and the Bernese Oberland during this trip.

This visit made a significant impact on Thailand – Switzerland relations. It was recorded that during this visit President Adolf Deucher proposed to King Rama V to start the negotiation on the Treaty of Friendship. During that time, Siam had already concluded friendship treaties with various European countries, inter alia, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany – all being countries bordering Switzerland.  The negotiation on the Treaty of Friendship between Siam and Switzerland did begin that year, but, with a stumbling block on the issue of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the conclusion of the treaty failed to be realised.

King Rama V also visited Switzerland twice in 1907. In May 1907, the King stayed in the Montreux area and visited the Rhein Falls in the Canton of Schaffhausen. It was recorded that during his second trip in September 1907 King Rama V met with President Eduard Müller in Bern and was hosted dinner by the Swiss Federal Council. The King also stayed in Luzern and visited Bürgenstock during this trip.

First Swiss Merchant in Siam

During the latter part of the 19th century, Swiss merchants began to look east to Siam for more business opportunities. The most notable Swiss trader who made the name in the Kingdom was Albert Jucker from Winterthur. Jucker was the first Swiss merchant who worked and lived in Bangkok. He was also the first Swiss to marry a (Eurasian) citizen of Siam. His company, Jucker, Sigg & Co., established in 1882, was the first Swiss firm in Siam with its profile as a merchant banking company and an agent for foreign insurance and shipping companies. Its business in Thailand later diversified into many areas, including mining and railway construction, although the firm went through several changes of management and gradually lost its Swiss hold.

Until today, the company still operates under the name Berli & Jucker Company. Due to its long history of services to Thailand, King Rama IX granted the Royal Warrant to  the company in 1967, allowing it to use the royal Garuda emblem alongside its name. In 1975, it was also one of the first 7 companies to be listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

Siamese in Switzerland

The earliest records of Siamese in Switzerland came in the late 19th century when students began to travel to study at schools and universities in Switzerland, especially in Zurich and Lausanne. It was during this time that Switzerland became a favourite place in Europe for Siamese, including princes from the royal court of King Rama V, to pursue their education. In 1917, the Siamese Government also sent 7 delegates to undergo military training in the Swiss Army.

The Establishment of Diplomatic Relations

Following the First World War, the Swiss Government considered opening a consulate in Siam to provide protection to its citizens and companies. This gave rise to the need for the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Siam to be concluded. On 28 May 1931, under the reign of  King Rama VII, the draft treaty was finally concluded and initialled by both sides in Tokyo, marking the beginning of the diplomatic relations as from that date (click here to see full text of Treaty). The Swiss Federal Assembly approved the draft treaty on 26 September 1931 and the treaty was signed on 2 October 1931 in Bern, completing the process of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between Siam and Switzerland.   

The Swiss community in Siam, which had, at that time, a total of 40 members, welcomed  the establishment of formal relations between the two countries. On 1 November 1931, they founded the “Swiss Society Bangkok” which has been active in promoting friendship and contact among the Swiss Community and with Thai friends of Switzerland residing in Thailand until today. On 2 April 1932, the Swiss Government opened the Swiss Consulate in Bangkok, with Otto Adler from Canton Solothurn, then manager of the Swiss firm Diethelm & Co. Ltd., as Swiss Honourary Consul. Shortly afterwards, the Swiss Embassy was opened in Bangkok in 1934. As for Siam, it accredited Prince Amoradat Kridakara, Minister at the Siamese Legation in Paris, as the first Thai diplomatic representative to Switzerland on 10 June 1932. The Royal Thai Embassy was not opened in Bern until 1948.

Royal Connections Continued in Switzerland

The relationship between Thailand and Switzerland continued to prosper over the years since the conclusion of the treaty of friendship and commerce in 1931, which came as a result of the royal visit to Switzerland by King Rama V in 1897. The profound attachment to Switzerland of the Thai royal family continued to play an important part in this relationship.

Switzerland has become an exceptional place for Thai people when, in 1933, the two future monarchs of Thailand, Prince Ananda and Prince Bhumibol, moved to and spent their childhood in Lausanne, Switzerland, together with their mother, Princess Srinagarindra, and sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana. Over the past 70 years that Prince Bhumibol became King Rama IX and reigned the country, this sentiment contributed greatly to the flourishing of Thailand – Switzerland ties. During the State Visit of King Rama IX and Queen Sirikit in August 1960, these special connections were also widely felt in Switzerland as the royal couple were warmly welcomed by the Swiss public. In 1960, the royal family, including King Rama X at the age of eight, also spent their summer in the Lavaux vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva at Puidoux-Chexbres and Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

Special Friendship Centred on People-to-People Connections

These fond memories of Switzerland among members of the Thai royal family have led to today’s people-centred relationship between the two countries. Frequent visits and exchanges of people from both sides have expanded, with over 100,000 Thai tourists visiting Switzerland and more than 200,000 Swiss spending their vacations in Thailand each year. The number of Swiss in Thailand has also grown to around 10,000 in 2020. Approximately, around 200 Swiss companies are now based in Thailand, creating more than 55,000 jobs. As for the number of Thais living in Switzerland, it is estimated to be as high as 36,000 people. Switzerland still remains a favourite country for Thai students, especially in the field of hospitality and science.

This special bond of friendship is a testament to the deep rooted relations between Thailand and Switzerland since the time of the visionary King Rama V and will serve as an important stepping stone for both countries to forge even closer ties and cooperation this year and many years to come.

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By Suthinee Kangrang and Aadit Samphaiworakit

Reference: Siam – Swiss Centenary: The Growth of a Friendship, Agathorn Aerni, 1997

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