Virachai Plasai, ambassador of Thailand to the United States, died on March 16 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., where he was being treated for myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of cancer that affects blood cells in the bone marrow. He was 58.
“Throughout his 32 years of diplomatic service, Ambassador Virachai served the Kingdom of Thailand with dedication and distinction,” a statement from the Thai Embassy in Washington said. “As an accomplished diplomat and expert in international law, he earned respect and admiration from the Thai people and his colleagues worldwide.”
Born in Bangkok on June 9, 1960, Plasai won a government scholarship to study at the University of Paris, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in law. In 1987, he returned to Thailand to join the Foreign Ministry, where he represented the Thai government in a number of high-profile legal cases, including as a panelist and arbitrator at the World Trade Organization.
From 2009 to 2015, Plasai served as Thailand’s ambassador to the Netherlands. In March 2015, he was appointed permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations in New York, where in 2016 he led the Group of 77, the largest grouping of countries at the world body. In June 2018, he was appointed ambassador to the United States.
In a September 2018 cover profile in The Washington Diplomat, Plasai emphasized the enduring, “excellent relations” between Thailand and the United States, which stretch back 200 years.
In that interview, he acknowledged U.S. concerns about the Thai military’s control of the government, while stressing that his Southeast Asian nation of 70 million would adopt a political system in line with its traditions.
“Our American friends value democracy very highly, which we understand,” the ambassador told us. “For the last two or three years, we’ve been laying down the new legal foundations for what we think should bring about a better form of democracy more suited to Thai culture.”
“Ambassador Virachai is remembered by many as a stalwart friend of the United States, working tirelessly to further the U.S.-Thai relationship and advance the prosperity and security of both our nations,” Robert Palladino, deputy spokesman of the State Department, said in a March 16 statement. “He was an avid musician, bringing the beauty of His Late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s musical compositions to many Americans.”
Alexander C. Feldman, president and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, also praised Plasai for his diplomatic and musical outreach.
“Ambassador Virachai was a great leader in establishing Thailand’s role on the international stage, and he served his country with enormous poise and dedication. He brought a special, deeply personal touch to diplomatic relations and his love of music and understanding of how the power of that music could unite people made a deep impact on all those he touched,” Feldman said.
“I will always remember watching him on stage in Bangkok in an impromptu performance, which clearly showed his love of music and his mastery of guitar, as well as how he used a jazz concert at the Library of Congress to mark the 185th anniversary of the establishment of U.S.-Thai relations,” he added.
Plasai became well known in Thailand in 2012 as chief litigator at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the legal dispute with Cambodia over ownership of the Preah Vihear Temple.
The court ruled that Cambodia had territorial sovereignty over the ancient Hindu temple and that both countries needed to cooperate to resolve other boundary issues and work to protect the UNESCO World Heritage site.
“It is true that being my country’s agent before the ICJ is by far the most important assignment I have ever been given, and one that comes with the heaviest pressure imaginable,” he said. “But I try not to focus on that aspect, because that would distract me from my duties. In short, I just go out there and play my best game.”
Plasai, who is survived by his wife Elizabeth, added: “I like to see myself as a professional football player who takes whatever job the manager entrusts him with, and considers himself lucky for having it.”
— Anna Gawel and Samantha Subin