updated 28 Jan 2011, 08:42
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Thu, Jan 27, 2011
The Nation
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There's something about 'Kristie'
by Tulsathit Taptim

The thing about Kristie A Kenney is that she's probably too good at being diplomatic to be a diplomat. Not that other diplomats aren't friendly, though. It's just that the new US ambassador to Thailand is un-diplomatically pleasant and gracious.

If you are confused by the intro, imagine a top American envoy doing a hearty high five with a reporter 15 minutes into their first meeting. After that, imagine an effective, albeit womanly, comment on WikiLeaks that goes straight to the point. And which ambassador to Thailand, new or old, can spend one and a half hours with Thai journalists, keeping them stuck on basketball, tennis, diving and cooking and discussing almost everything under the Kingdom's sun without Thaksin Shinawatra's name being uttered even once?

If that was Kristie the diplomat at work, one wonders what Kristie the laid-back lady is like. One certainty is a hyper-active woman who can't live without her iPhone, which is where all her tweets about pets, weather, why-can't-I-upload-my-pics? or I-slipped-in-the-new-home have come from. During her meeting with a small group of Thai reporters yesterday, they lost track of how many sports she loves and plays.

It's not unusual for top-ranking diplomats to discuss their mothers' objections to their career choice with first-time guests. It's the natural way such topics come up that differentiates her. If diplomats are taught to break the ice, she may have perfected the art of melting it in 5 minutes. And while all diplomats must learn to be charming, to be un-diplomatically so must take a unique talent.

After the WikiLeaks fiasco, maybe there are few better options than sending a person like her here. (Her Bangkok posting was decided before the scandal broke, though.) The former ambassador, Eric John (fair play to him, he was in the middle of it when it came to Thai-leaks, and he's a man), had to limp out of the Kingdom after issuing a media statement in hundreds of words focusing on "privacy", raising the possibility of some information being false, and guaranteeing America's deep appreciation of strong, valuable ties with Thailand and mutual history.

It would have been interesting if it had been Kristie Kenny who had to do the damage control. However, despite the luck of not being directly involved, her depiction of Julian Assange as someone who "stole your notebook" and laid bare the contents may be more effective than attempts to make him an out-and-out terrorist.

She wants to know far more about Thailand than just the yellow shirts and the red shirts. The country in her view is too vast, diverse, beautiful and economically promising to stall too long over a political crisis. The new ambassador is setting out to do what she did in the Philippines, which she seemingly explored not just as a diplomat but also as an ordinary person.

The real work has not yet begun and the jury is still pretty much out. A Twitter-crazed and blogaholic ambassador is unconventional at best and in some circumstances can turn controversial. Having said that, maybe it's secrecy-dominated diplomacy that is unconventional, so much so that when a woman in the field looks this normal, it appears unorthodox.

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