Consul General’s Corner: The shot heard round the world
May 9, 2011
On the morning of Monday, May 2, we got the news that President Obama would shortly make a televised announcement. Our Deputy Ambassador, Judith Cefkin, was visiting from Bangkok and was about to meet with Consulate staff.
I quickly checked online news and saw the first articles: The President was about to tell the world that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden.
Judith shared the news with Consulate staff. As soon as our meeting was finished, we turned on the television just as the President began to speak. He explained how U.S. forces had flown into Pakistan, engaged in a firefight on the compound in which Bin Laden was hiding, and shot him dead. My initial assumption that we'd dropped a bomb from a drone was incorrect; we clearly wanted to be sure of our target. The President told us American forces had already identified the body and carried it out with them.
U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney spoke to Thai press all that day, affirming the President's message that the world was rid of a dangerous murderer and that the U.S. was not at war with Islam. When asked about heightened security at U.S. missions abroad, Ambassador Kenney said the U.S. valued the cooperation of Thai authorities and that we were naturally being careful. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. The Ambassdor noted that visitors to the Embassy and Consulate might notice heightened security – more police, more screening prior to entry – in the coming days as a precaution. Deputy Ambassador Cefkin spoke to the Public Relations Department Region 5 at the end of the day with the same message.
In reaction to the raid, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva pledged to increase security throughout the country. He was quoted in the Thai press as having instructed Thai authorities to monitor reactions to Bin Laden’s death, “even though many observers believe his death has nothing to do with the restive South where terrorist attacks have been going on for seven years,” wrote The Nation newspaper on May 3. Abhisit was quoted as saying, “We had nothing to do with [the operation to kill bin Laden], but security agencies must monitor and evaluate reactions from all parties, as we don't know how different groups will react to this development.”
On May 2 in Washington, the Department of State issued a Travel Alert for U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad to be aware of the enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counterterrorism activity in Pakistan. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and Consulate forwarded the message the next day to those registered with us, even though we weren’t aware of a specific threat in Thailand, to remind Americans to be vigilant.
Here in Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai News ran an article on May 6 under the headline, “Commander of Chiang Mai Provincial Police orders stricter security at U.S. Consulate,” noting that police would keep a watchful eye on suspicious vehicles and would protect key provincial landmarks and tourist attractions. The Police Commander was also quoted as saying Chiang Mai was confident of its security matters.
While news of Bin Laden’s death was obviously big news in the United States, I was surprised by how interested Thailand has been. Throughout the week, wherever I went, people wanted to discuss the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. A former Thai policeman congratulated me, while an American friend asked me if we were worried about security. Thai academics asked me whether the killing would help the President’s re-election chances. American colleagues debated the event and what it meant.
A Bangkok Post editorial on May 4 wrote, “Among bin Laden's nearly 3,000 victims in the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York were two young Thai women with entire lives ahead of them. Another huge and tragic casualty has been Islam, the religion bin Laden shamed and dragged down. His evil associates have killed more Muslims than any other group, and have also caused suspicions between Muslims and non-Muslims which had not before been prevalent…”
As Chiang Mai has the country’s largest Muslim population outside the deep South, we wanted to reach out to the Muslim community. We hosted Muslim leaders at an iftar dinner last summer, and I had attended one with my children at a neighborhood mosque. We regularly attend interreligious ceremonies and have brought U.S. experts to meet local Muslim leaders. I therefore wanted to reach out to them to reiterate the President’s words: Bin Laden’s defeat is a victory for all human beings who seek to live in peace, security, and dignity. He dedicated his life to destroying innocent lives and human progress. His demise will ultimately empower those around the world who seek to build -- not destroy.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on May 2, “This is a day, not only for Americans, but also for people all over the world who look to a more peaceful and secure future – yes, with continued vigilance, but more so with growing hope and renewed faith in what is possible.”
The events of last week were far from Thailand, but they affected us all.