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Forging New Sister-City Ties: Austin and Chiang Mai

Asia ASEAN The Mekong

Starting a new chapter for Texas-Thailand relations, Mayor Kirk Watson and Provincial Governor Nirat Phongsittithaworn signed a Memorandum of Understanding launching the Austin-Chiang Mai Sister Cities Initiative on November 12, 2023.

With 190 years of formal diplomatic relations under their belt, Thailand stands as the United States’ longest standing diplomatic partner in the Indo-Pacific region. In 1833, the United States formalized relations with Thailand with the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and then reaffirmed relations with the 1954 Manila Pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. More recently in 2003, Thailand was designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally. Today the two countries cooperate in a range of areas including public health, trade, science and technology, education, cultural exchange, law enforcement, and security operations.

The Austin-Chiang Mai sister city relationship is the fourth between the United States and Thailand, joining the ranks of Chiang Rai-Union City (California), Bangkok-Washington (District of Columbia), and Udontani-Reno (Nevada). Austin’s Mayor Kirk Watson commented on the new relationship, stating, “Austin and Chiang Mai share many similarities. Both cities stand as global hubs for art, culture, music, food, and film.” He added that, “We share a commitment to cutting-edge technology, creative industries, and a strong entrepreneurial spirit. We envision significant potential for both cities as we collaborate on shared goals.

On November 12, Watson and Chiang Mai Provincial Governor Nirat Phongsittithaworn signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) officially launching the sister city relationship. Other participants in the signing ceremony included the Ambassador of Thailand to the United States, Tanee Sangrat, US Consul General in Chiang Mai, Lisa Buzenas, a newly established sister cities initiative volunteer board of directors, and the visiting Thai delegation of 30 local officials, business leaders, and entrepreneurs.

The sister city initiative has four key objectives: to facilitate collaboration between the local governments of Austin and Chiang Mai, to promote mutually beneficial trade, investment, economic development, to cultivate new educational and cultural connections, and to enhance cooperation and training opportunities in law enforcement. Furthermore, Governor Phongsittithaworn stated, “I am honored to support the launch of this new Austin-Chiang Mai Sister Cities initiative and lead a delegation from Chiang Mai to visit Austin. We hope to meet new partners and friends, participate in an exchange of ideas and expertise, generate important new economic ties between our cities, and of course share the beauty of Thai culture and incredible Thai food with communities in Austin.”

Following the signing ceremony, a public celebration and cultural festival was held at the Wat Buddhananachat. Thai and Americans celebrated the new connection between Austin and Chiang Mai with authentic Thai food, music, and dancing. According to a report by the Thai delegation, over 100 people joined in on the festivities. In addition to the MoU signing ceremony and celebration, the Thai delegation spent November 11 to 16 meeting with various key stakeholders in Austin, including Austin City Council Members, the Austin Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations officers, the Texas Department of Agriculture, IBM’s X-Force Red team, the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, and the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce.

Many of the businesses and organizations that the delegation met with are concerned with innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. One of the delegation’s meetings was with the University of Texas at Austin’s IC2 Institute — an entrepreneurial hub and center for technology and innovation founded by George Kozmetsky in 1977. The Thai delegation was particularly interested in the institute’s Austin Technology Incubator (ATI) program — the longest active technology incubator in the United States. ATI supports entrepreneurs addressing complex global challenges by connecting startups with the expertise, relationships, and funding resources they need to succeed.

Further exploring Austin’s entrepreneurial spirit, the delegation visited Capital Factory with the Greater Austin Asian American Chamber of Commerce. Capital Factory, which aims to be the “center of gravity for entrepreneurs in Texas,” is a venture capital firm and an accelerator that supports startups by providing coworking spaces and helping them find other investors, mentors, employees, and customers. Notably, Capital Factory fosters innovation across various sectors even expanding into defense with its Center for Defense Innovation — a public-private partnership with the Army Futures Command. The Thai delegation described their interactions with Capital Factory’s mentors as providing “an excellent platform for knowledge exchange, networking, and the exploration of potential collaborative ventures.”

Another meeting was with South by Southwest (SXSW) co-President & Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest and Director of Global Sales Neil Minocha. Founded in 1987, SXSW is an annual event consisting of conferences and festivals that celebrate the convergence of technology, film, music, education, and culture. The meeting prompted the delegation to consider the potential benefits of Thailand and Chiang Mai’s participation in SXSW in the future. Additionally, the delegation shared their insights about Chiang Mai’s CNXP (Chiang Mai Experience) festival, which was inspired by SXSW. The delegation’s report stated, “We hope to establish a learning partnership and seek mentorship from the SXSW organizers, leveraging their vast experience and knowledge to further enrich our own creative and innovative endeavors in Chiang Mai.”

Overall, the establishment of the Austin-Chiang Mai sister city initiative marks an important step forward in Texas-Thailand relations. The partnership provides many avenues for building further connections between the two cities, especially in the creative and technology industries.

Bettyjane Hoover is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, studying International Affairs with a focus on the Indo-Pacific region.