The tenure of every statesman is marked by a major crisis and how they and their staff respond to it. For Denis Comeau, the Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Myanmar and Laos that crisis was the 26 December 2004 tsunami. Before we get into Ambassador Comeau’s background and how he runs the embassy here, we first look at how he and his staff responded to the tragic events of the tsunami.            

 

THE TSUNAMI

 

On the morning the tsunami occurred the ambassador was preparing to take off for Koh Samui for a holiday with his family when his Political Counselor Mark McDowell called him and asked if he had felt an earthquake. The Ambassador said he hadn’t, but said that he’d phone around, and check if everything was ok. Mark then called again, just before the ambassador boarded the plane, and said there had indeed been an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra and that he had probably felt a tremor from that quake. A friend of Mark’s then called him and said he was sleeping in his hotel room in Phuket when his room had suddenly starting filling up with water.

 

Over the morning, it became clear that something had happening in Phuket, so the Ambassador decided to send Consular Officer Diego Tremblay to investigate. But Diego called back in the early afternoon saying all the commercial flights to Phuket had been cancelled. So the Ambassador told him to call around and see if there was anyway he could get there besides driving. By mid-afternoon, the Embassy had three seats on a military flight that evening and Diego, Sukanya Racharit and Ganya Lers-Anakevattana prepared to leave. They arrived at the Phuket town hall staging area about 11pm and worked around the clock until about the same time the next night (Diego took with him all the equipment needed to document people: a digital camera, a computer, and all the software necessary to issue documents. As it turned out, during the tsunami aftermath, Canada was the only country able to issue documents in Phuket that would allow people to fly home directly.)      

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By late afternoon on 26 December 04, it was decided that Mark McDowell was going to call in the embassy’s contingency group and start rotating the staff. Diego couldn’t be reached because the cell phone signals were all blocked in Phuket. Using her contacts with Bangkok Airways, Thum Brady arranged for the ambassador to get on the first flight from Samui to Phuket on Monday morning. The ambassador told his wife, Jocelyne, that he was just going to have a look-see and grabbed a day bag: he ended staying for three weeks.

 

The ambassador recalls: “We knew something important had happened, but we had no idea how bad it was. It took days before people really understood the regional scope of the tsunami. We made the decision that Sunday night to send Colonel Brian Jackson and two of our drivers with embassy vehicles to Phuket, just in case we might need them. And these really proved useful. The most intense period was that first week, but the embassy was open 24/7 until the end of January.

 

 “By Thursday December 30th, we had documented, visited, heard of, or seen pretty close to 400 Canadians who had been affected by the tsunami. And Diego was issuing travel documents to those who had lost theirs. And by the 30th, it was also clear to me, that those who had survived had left and gone. But we still had no idea how many victims there were: in the first couple of days, we were talking hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. 

 

“Then the job turned to figuring out how many Canadians were killed, or injured. Ottawa asked how many Canadians were visiting Thailand at the time. I said I didn’t have any way of knowing exactly because Canadians don’t usually travel in groups. They tend to travel independently, and they don’t tend to register with the Embassy, nor tell us where they are going. But what I could tell them was that about 120,000 Canadians travel to Thailand every year, so if you divide that number by 12, you get roughly 10,000 in one month and if just 1% of those were in Phuket when the tsunami struck, you were looking to account for about 1,000 people and by Thursday we had documented the whereabouts of 400.

 

“During the whole event, Mark McDowell, who was in charge of the embassy while I was in Phuket, was a tower of strength. When you are involved with something like this you have tunnel vision, but Mark was able to take a step back and see the big picture.

 

“That first week our Operations Centre in Ottawa got more phone calls than they did the week after 9-11, it was a staggering number of calls - parents would call asking about their son vacationing in Phuket, then the uncle would call, then the brother would call, and then the friends would call. So one our tasks was documenting that Canadians were ok, and when we found out that they were, we relayed that information back to Ottawa, who would then reassure the families.

 

“I am very proud of our staff and how they reacted during the tsunami. In the end, we were lucky that the tsunami only killed 18 Canadians in Thailand and by July of 2005, we had identified and repatriated all eighteen.  We maintained an office in Phuket until that time, providing support for the RCMP and forensic people still working on the identification of Canadians. Once a body was released, we communicated with the families. Some wanted the remains shipped home, while others wanted them cremated with the ashes spread in the ocean, and we documented that.

 

“With something like the tsunami, you learn what’s important in life, and what’s not. You learn about your own mortality, and the randomness of an event like this: there’s only so much control you can have over your life.”

  

 Image

Ambassador Comeau dropping the puck at the Chevron Cup.  

     

 THE ROAD TAKEN

 

In May of 1973, after graduating from the University of Ottawa with a Bachelor’s of Commerce degree, Ambassador Comeau joined the Department of Industry, Trade & Commerce and went to work for the Canadian Government Tourist Board (CTGB). He spent ten months working in the marketing sector of the CTGB and then received his first international assignment to Cleveland. Back in those days tourism promotion at the federal level was big business and the CTGB had offices around the world, many of them in the US. In 1976, he was transferred to Paris and then in 1978 back to Ottawa. Soon after returning to Ottawa, Arthur Perron, then the Director of Personnel at the Trade Commission Service, called Denis and asked him if he would be interested in being seconded to the Trade Commission Service (Perron later became the Canadian ambassador to Thailand, and preceded Ambassador Comeau as the Canadian ambassador to South Korea). He said “yes” and soon afterwards his career was jump-started as he was dispatched to Berne, Switzerland, in his first official role as Trade Commissioner.

 

Shortly after Ambassador Comeau left for Switzerland, the Trade Commissioner’s Office, which was part of the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce, was integrated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Those working in the foreign section of the CTGB, like the Ambassador, were given the choice of staying with the CTGB, or joining the new Department.  He chose the latter, and when his assignment in Berne finished, he was posted to Jakarta (his first taste of Southeast Asia) and then he was sent back to Ottawa, where he became the department’s trade spokesman. More irony here, because the man who hired him for that position was Sean Brady, then the director of the media relations office, a position Ambassador Comeau soon assumed. Then after Sean was posted to Singapore as the High Commissioner, Denis soon followed him there as the Trade Commissioner and the number two man at the Embassy.          

 

Then from 1991-93, he returned to Ottawa, working as the Director of the Secretariat for Consultative Committees on Trade & Competitiveness, which advised the Government on how to articulate its position in international trade negotiations.

 

His next posting saw him travel to Washington D.C. as our Senior Trade Commissioner to the US, a post he held from 1993-95. Then he went back to Ottawa as the Director of the Japan Division, a posting he held from 1995-1998, before he was actually sent to Tokyo, where from 1998-2001, he was the deputy chief of mission. In 2001, he assumed his first posting as Ambassador when he became our chief diplomat in Seoul. And then in late 2004, he became the Canadian ambassador to Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. 

 

Looking back, Ambassador Comeau says “Once I developed a better understanding of government, I started thinking about eventually becoming an ambassador and how I could position myself, or perfect the skills, necessary to get there. I was lucky enough to get great assignments and have great people like Sean Brady to work for. We all need hard work, skills, mentors and luck in life.”  

 

 ADMINISTRATION

 

Did you have a mission goal when you arrived and how do you manage the embassy?

 

“By and large, the general objective remains the same from mission to mission: to promote and protect Canadian interests. We have a good relationship with the Thai government that is largely problem-free. There are some problems on the trade side that we have been working on. For example, one of our main objectives is to work with the Thai authorities to reopen the Thai market to Canadian beef.

 

“We have 60-odd people on staff, including 17 Canadians. Like any organization, I have to manage our human and financial resources, and I have to deal with the staff’s personal and performance issues. But I have department heads to help me do this.   

 

“I must also deal with the outside world. That means networking, and interfacing with senior government officials and ministers, NGOs, journalists and my counterparts in the diplomatic community. We share information and assessments of the local political situation. What does it mean? Why should Canada care? And what are the implications for Canada?”   

 

What about our aid programs?

 

“We have had a bilateral aid program in Thailand for the last 25 years, but that came to an end on 21 March 06, and now a regional aid program will be run out of the Bangkok embassy.  One of these programs is the CAN$15 million Canada/Asian Regional Emerging Infectious Disease Project. The goal is to increase the capability of selected pubic health systems so they can better detect and respond to emerging infectious diseases. 

 

“Another project is a WTO capacity-building project, whereby a series of seminars will be held over the next few years and Thai and Laotian officials, who are involved in WTO discussions, will be trained in negotiating skills. Other projects include an HIV-AIDS program, and a women and children’s rights project.

 

“The Canada Fund for Local Initiative funds small community-based initiatives and has provided almost CAN$300,000/year in support.  One of these programs was a pig breeding and bio-gas project in Prao. The total income of the village was Bt18,000 before the project was introduced, and then Bt80,000 afterwards, so it did have a considerable impact on the community. Another example was a project in Chiang Mai, which supports children of  HIV-AIDS affected parents .

 

“Canada committed over CAN$3 million to tsunami relief efforts in Thailand, which supported thirteen projects including micro-credit funding, giving money to merchants who lost all their stock, funding the repair of a number of fishing boats, giving the Krabi school district a new boat so they service the schools in their area located on islands, and publishing a book in Thai about a little boy who loses his father in the tsunami and how he copes with it. The embassy also helped fund a day-care centre for children affected by the tsunami.

 

“The Canadian government has already given CAN$5 million dollars to assist Burmese refugees, and it has pledged another CAN$10 million over the next five years to help the Burmese Border Consortium, which is made up of a number of NGOs, including the Canadian group, InterPares. The funding supports programs such as Dr. Cynthia Muang’s clinic, “backpack” doctors, seminars, English language lessons and a program dealing with recently released political prisoners. (After a request from the UNHCR, Canada interviewed 841 refugees in February at the Mae La Oon Refugee Camp. It is believed that 800 of these will eventually be accepted and resettled in Canada).”

 

What about the services the embassy offers?

 

“We have a very clear set of service standards we provide to the Canadian businesses community, which include six core services: a) visit information b) market prospects  c) key contacts d) local company information e) troubleshooting f) face-to-face briefing. We also assist Thai companies who are interested in sourcing products in Canada, or investing in Canada.

 

“And we provide first-class consular service to Canadian in distress. This requires our officers to express a lot of empathy. On average there are 30-50 Canadian deaths a year in Thailand (mostly tourists and mostly motorcycle accidents with people not wearing a helmet). We have to contact the families, deal with the police and help ship the remains home. The embassy also assists Canadians who get in trouble with the law here and as some prisoners have very little contact with people back home, for many, the Embassy is their only contact with the outside world (by the way, any Canadian serving less than life can apply to serve the rest of their sentence in Canada after four years, while those serving life can apply after eight years.)   

 

“The Immigration section of the embassy deals only with temporary residents (visitors, students and temporary workers), adoption cases and convention refugees. All other applicants for permanent resident status in Canada have their applications processed through a regional processing centre in Singapore.”    

 

“The RCMP officer attached to the embassy is Mike Hiller and he works on counter-terrorism measures, and focuses on international crime with a Canadian angle. Bangkok is a known-centre for producing false documents and this has far-reaching 

implications from transnational crime to terrorism. In the area of defense, Colonel Brian Jackson is our military liaison and he is the key to our military assistance program, which sees a number of Thai officers trained in Canada.”    

 

What about your dealings with Burma and Laos?

 

“Our policy towards Burma and its regime is very severe; therefore my contact with the Burmese government is extremely limited. I presented my credentials to General Than Shwe, but when I go back most of my contacts are with like-minded missions, international organizations like the UN and the ILO and NGOs. No one really knows what’s happening in Burma these days. Though they’ve moved the capital to Pyinmana (situated approximately halfway between Yangoon and Mandalay), all the foreign missions are all still in Rangoon and if we want to get in touch with someone in government we are told to contact our interlocutors by fax.            

 

“In Laos, our level of trade is small – less than CAN$10 million, though there are a number of Canadian companies active in various projects ranging from urban development to road construction, the environment and health care. These are usually financed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.    

 

“We are working with the Laotian government to try and get them to sign on to the Ottawa Convention on Landmines. When countries sign on they have a three-fold obligation: a) to never use landmines again; b) to destroy their existing stockpiles of landmines; c) to remove the existing landmines (the most difficult and painstaking task). The problem now seems to be they do not think they can fulfill the third obligation as it extremely costly and labour intensive (In Thailand, the average cost of clearing one sq.m. of land of land mines is CAN$1 and Thailand has 78,000 sq. miles of possible area where land mines could be) But once you do sign on, you get assistance from countries like Canada to help meet your obligations.”

 

WRAP UP

 

The Canadian community in Thailand is very lucky to have Denis Comeau representing us. Hanging in his office, along with all the official memorabilia, is a white t-shirt autographed by his team in commemoration of all his hard work during the tsunami. He handled the mission, his staff and all the Canadians he came in contact with during that period with grace and caring. Whether it was shepherding Prime Minister Martin or Foreign Affairs Minister Pettigrew around, talking to the families of victims, or making sure his staff was ok, Ambassador Comeau showed true leadership, empathy and understanding.                


                       

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