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US ambassador connects with Thai 'Tweethearts'

by Didier Lauras

BANGKOK, July 13, 2011 (AFP) - She tells us when she has a sore throat, craves a milkshake or is stuck in a traffic jam. The US ambassador to Thailand is everywhere on Twitter -- and far from traditional diplomatic practice.

"Probably other people have a sore throat too," Kristie Kenney told AFP, as she explained her unconventional approach to the job.

For Kenney, the days of starchy emissaries living in ivory towers are over. Diplomacy, said the 56-year-old, is about relationships. Between two governments, of course, but also between two peoples.

Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have created connections that never used to exist, and Kenney -- who arrived in Thailand in January -- has opened up to them in a disarmingly friendly way.

Nearly 20,000 people "follow" her daily Thai travels via Twitter.

"For me it's a connection and it's a way to connect people," she explained. "And it allows people to feel that they can reach out to the ambassador, who is not just a figure hidden in a big building."

The "connection" woven by her predecessor was of a somewhat different order. In late 2010, the Wikileaks website published cables by the former ambassador Eric John which quoted unflattering comments about the future of the monarchy -- a major taboo in Thailand.

The cables caused a stir, especially since the US has been an ally of Bangkok since the beginning of the Cold War. Is Kenney, then, on a mission to improve the image of the United States in Thailand?

"I've never sort of thought of it as a grand strategic plan," she said, adding that her Twitter feed is personal and has nothing to do with the State Department.

But she admits some in Washington might have found her relaxed style suitable for the job.

"It does make sense," said the diplomat, who likes to be "someone transparent" in her methods. "People have a sense of what I am doing, where I am now."

Kenney has gone beyond the Internet in her high-profile efforts to embrace Thai culture.

Earlier this month, she was one of two foreigners honoured by the Ministry of Culture for outstanding proficiency in the Thai language.

And in one of her most memorable stunts, she was pictured in several Thai newspapers parachuting above rice fields, wearing a crisp white tracksuit, helmet, goggles and a huge smile.

"People mention it to me all the time," she said. "Regularly people say, 'Oh my gosh I saw you, how was that?' And I say it was a terrifying... not-to-be-repeated adventure."

Her attitude has raised eyebrows and even exasperated some of the more traditional embassy staff in the Thai capital.

"It's Alice in Wonderland," said one foreign diplomat. "Frankly, after the parachute, one had to wonder what she would find next."

But Kenney is not alone in embracing the "soft power" of cultural diplomacy and social networking. In one recent tweet, she said the coffee was brewing ahead of breakfast with her friend Asif Ahmad, the UK Ambassador to Thailand.

"I can almost sense the aroma down the road!" he tweeted in response.

US President Barack Obama, who pioneered the use of social media during his 2008 election campaign, fired off his first tweet from the White House in early July.

The American embassies are "leading the pack in Southeast Asia" in terms of social media, said Jon Russell, a blogger from the Asian Correspondent website, and Kenney's popularity is down to her personal and responsive manner.

"This personal approach feeds into many Thais' interest in reading snippets from famous people's lives, as well as the chance to reach out and contact them," Russell added.

Kenney denied her informal style -- "Good morning tweethearts!" is a typical daily message -- detracts from more serious diplomatic matters, such as keeping secrets, delivering speeches and providing feedback from Washington.

"I am completely comfortable with my ability to be clear and direct. And I don't think the people I meet with don't understand what I mean," she said.

While it's impossible to gauge what the Thai authorities think, Kenney has become a huge hit with the general public and the media since she began work in Bangkok in January -- more so than any of her diplomatic peers in the city.

"Not that other diplomats aren't friendly, though. It's just that the new US ambassador to Thailand is un-diplomatically pleasant and gracious," wrote Tulsathit Taptim in the English-language Nation newspaper.

Three days after the election, the ubiquitous ambassador was pictured on the front of The Nation with Thailand's incoming premier Yingluck Shinawatra, while on the back she was snapped with outgoing leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"Talked to Khun Yingluck yesterday to congratulate on Thai elections. US looks forward to working with the next Thai Government," she tweeted.

Could this social networking be the silver bullet for diplomacy? "It is extremely superficial. You've got 140 characters on Twitter," she said. But "I do think it can help people feel more comfortable with America."


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