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Dirk Naumann – Man on a mission

PHUKET: The recent news that German Honorary Consul Dirk Naumann would be leaving his post so soon after the Australian Honorary Consul, Larry Cunningham, departed his, was met with worried whispers that the ‘other’ most outspoken honorary consul had given up amid an avalanche of antipathy for the work that they were doing, or at least attempting to do.


By Jody Houton

Wednesday 15 January 2014, 08:54AM


The decision to leave, however, is not one that was taken lightly. Sitting down with Dirk in his little office on the Bypass Road – the same place where I first interviewed him several years ago – he is a little slower on his feet and a little softer spoken.

“I’m in my ninth year of cancer,” Dirk says abruptly, as way of explaining why he must leave, “before they could control it, but now they can’t. 

The German Embassy has already made a decision on his replacement, a 45-year-old woman, but the official announcement is pending approval by Thai authorities. Once she is given the green light, she will take over the duties of the office.

There’s a tinge of sadness when Dirk speaks, but it is more melancholy than morbidity.

“I’ve had a very good life and have no regrets. Some people fear death, but I don’t. I fear the pain associated with death, but now that Thai authorities allow the potent medicine [morphine] into the country, I do not have any pain.

“Then, death becomes a very simple matter.”

Dirk is almost 72-years-old, and has lived more than 40 of his years in Thailand and away from his native city of Hamburg, Germany. It meant that the decision to stay or go was an easy one to make.

“My home is here now – I’ve been away from Germany for a long time. My friends are all over the world. I think I have one 93-year-old uncle in Hamburg – what am I going to do with a 93-year-old uncle?”

Besides the uncle, who Dirk quips may outlive him, he has children in Germany, one of whom, along with his granddaughter, is coming back to Thailand to take care of him.

Dirk first arrived in Thailand around 46 years ago, when he was sent by a German pharmaceutical company to expand operations in the country.

“I eventually became the youngest ever managing director of the company at 23-years-old. I still am to this day.”

Dirk then continued to work for different pharmaceutical companies until retiring at the age of 59.

His work didn’t stop there though, and a couple of years later he was approached by the German Embassy. In 2003, he moved to Phuket and started work as the island’s German Honorary Consul.

“The role hasn’t changed significantly,” says Dirk after a moment or two of contemplation, “but I have become more outspoken and aggressive [during the ten year tenure] and less patient.”

“Why have I become more aggressive?” asks Dirk, anticipating my next question. “Well, it’s because I’ve watched this beautiful island in the Andaman Sea suffer a slow and certain death.”

Dirk tells The Phuket News that throughout his appointment, he has remained consistent with two main issues: tuk-tuks and taxis; and water pollution.

“Unfortunately with regards to water pollution, nothing has changed, nothing has been done and very little has been done regarding the taxi and tuk-tuk situation,” he says with an air of disappointment.

The pollution of Phuket’s waters are especially a sore point with Dirk, as the ocean was one of the main reasons why he moved to Phuket in the first place.

“When I came 11 years ago, my primary objective was to sail, because I loved the sea, beaches and the sun.”

Unfortunately, Dirk’s main pastime was to come to an abrupt end in 2007 when he received a visit from a fellow German.

“He came to me to tell me that he’d come to Phuket with his own water testing kit and showed me the results, he said that almost all of the beaches in Phuket were unsafe to swim off.”

BRITISH INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL, PHUKET

From that day onwards Dirk never went into the waters off Phuket again. He was also instrumental in setting up and assisting two separate German TV programme makers to visit to investigate water pollution levels, one of which was Wir Retten Ihren Urlaub (We Save Your Holiday).

Their own investigation verified that water pollution levels were completely unsafe for swimming in.

The situation has not improved, believes Dirk – if anything it’s probably become much worse.

“The Phuket government just does not have enough funds to fix the problems,” says Dirk.

“The central government, in fact, has never allocated sufficient funds, regardless of whether Abhisit or Shinawatra [is in charge], they only take, take, take. Now the scars on the Phuket environment are very evident and horrendous.”

Dirk adds that it’s wrong to equate visitor numbers with success, and believes the statistics quoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand are not only probably inaccurate, as they make no distinction between whether arrivals stay in Phuket or go elsewhere, but also do not factor in the type of tourist who is visiting.

“We need to stop being so self congratulatory about things. There needs to be proper studies done, proper statistics [gathered], it’s not just about visitor numbers.

“We need to look at how much the Russians and Chinese are actually spending, and how many Phuket restaurants, owned by Phuket people, they are going to!”

“Chinese buy food at 7/11 and go back to their Chinese-owned hotel and play mahjong. They don’t spend money or stay for the same kind of nights in hotels like the Europeans did.

“People will one day wake up: the Europeans are leaving and finding other places like Bali, the Australians are leaving, and the Russians and Chinese will eventually leave. The congestion and pollution will eventually take its toll.”

Dirk references Italy in the 1970s, “It was incredibly popular until 1972, when there were numerous reports of the beaches being polluted, the food being terrible, and the waiters being rude. For the next few years, explains Dirk, visitor numbers plummeted and Italy realised it needed to wake up.

“I guests that’s what will happen in Phuket,” he says.

It is for this reason that Dirk believes it is the duty of media in Phuket to never shy away from pointing out the negative aspects of life here, the elements that he says are destroying Phuket – without destroying Phuket as a tourist destination. This he says is, of course, a delicate balance.

Although he believes that Phuket is not yet at the point of no return, he says the island is still headed down the same unsustainable road it has been ever since being discovered as a tourist destination.

“I’ve not seen a substantial difference between the first governor I worked with and the one I’m working with now,” says Dirk, adding that he is at least happy that the tri-monthly honorary consul meetings with the Governor are now back on.

“Perhaps he [Phuket Governor Maitree Intusut] realised that speaking to the hon cons is not an all bad thing, but I’ve always wished the meetings were a little smaller and a little more intimate really.

“That way people could speak more openly and every word doesn’t carry such weight. There are too many people involved.”

Although the time for Dirk to be worrying about such things is drawing to an end, this doesn’t mean that he will not stop caring about Phuket or Thailand – his home.

“Why do I still love Thailand?” he says, “It’s very easy for me. It’s very warm and I like the food and the people – especially the ladies. And I love the mai pen rai attitude – I like this attitude a lot.”

So how will this hard-working honorary consul be spending his long overdue retirement?

“I’m going to be spending my time with my daughter and grandson now, and I have a feeling that they’re going to be taking up a lot of my time,” he says with a smile.

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