His speech completed, Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonde was fielding questions at a dinner with foreign journalists here earlier this month. What about the secret American talks with Vietnam about normalizing relations, he was asked.
Prem referred the question to U.S. Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, present in the banquet hall.
Impatience showed on the ambassador's face as he rose to his feet.
"The question is ridiculous," he boomed in the tones of a man who does not suffer fools gladly. There was no truth whatsoever to reports of normalization, he declared. Peace would never come until Hanoi withdraws its troops from Cambodia.
It was not exactly a diplomatic performance, and later Abramowitz mused that perhaps he had come on a bit strong, but Bangkok has long grown accustomed to headstrong talk and action from the 47-year-old ambassador. g
Some people dislike him. Many others are intensely loyal, but almost everyone in diplomatic circles here agrees that he has been an effective and forceful advocate for the United States, helping to restore prestige and influence lost with the 1975 defeat in Vietnam.
Regional events have helped his task considerably: the exodus of Indochinese refugees and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 forced Thailand to turn to its old allies, the Americans, once again. The three-story embassy here has become one of the most important U.S. missions abroad.
Arriving at 7:30 a.m., Abramowitz directs his staff of 370 Americans with the energy of a self-made businessman running his own factory.
"Starts early, works late. He's not a time-waster," says one diplomat. His door is usually open. One need not mince words with him, it is said. Sometimes wearing a slightly rumpled suit, Abramowitz seems not fully at ease with the limousines, a guarded mansion and social deference accorded to an American ambassador.
Thailand is Abramowitz's first such posting. A Foreign Service officer since 1960, he served in Taiwan and Hong Kong and for four years before coming to Thailand he was on loan to the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary of defense, specializing in East Asian affairs.
Close relations with Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asia, who has long advocated U.S. recognition of Vietnam, earned Abramowitz a reputation as a dove among his Pentagon colleagues.
But in Thailand, he has argued both publicly and privately for a hard line against the Vietnamese. Hanoi's intransigence, he recently said, "delays reconstruction in the whole of Indochina, puts enormous pressure on Thailand, generates the possibility of Sino-Soviet hostilities and bids to doom the Cambodian people."
Words like these are applauded by the Thai government, which is backing the deposed Khmer Rouge authorities against the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin government. But in two key areas -- military aid and refugees -- Abramowitz and the Thais have had serious differences.
Thai officials view the close to 300,000 Indochinese refugees now in the country as a security threat and economic burden, and hint periodically of repatriating them by force. Abramowitz and the U.S. Embassy staff, on the grounds that the United States has an obligation to the refugees because of the Indochina war, spend long hours lobbying to keep them safe.
When the Thai Army sent 44,000 Cambodians to the border by bus and forced them across at gunpoint last year, Abramowitz hurriedly called on the prime minister and Army commander-in-chief to urge them to reconsider.
Feeling the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees does not do its job in protecting refugees, he has allowed U.S. Embassy refugee workers to play unofficial roles as refugee guardians, going to areas where new refugees are reported and pleading with Thai police and soldiers to let them stay.
At the same time Abramowitz also promised the Thais that the United States would try to accelerate resettlement. Last year Washington expanded quotas so that departures for the United States rose from 2,700 in June 1979 to an expected 7,500 this month.
Some Thai officials and military officers resent the Americans' demands that refugees be allowed to stay.
"It's very easy for the U.S. to preach to us. "Take all the refugees,'" says Deputy Prime Minister Thanat Khoman.
Despite the risks of allowing these people into Thailand, the Thais argue, the United States has offered no real support to the armed forces, who now face Vietnamese tanks and troops just across the border in Cambodia.
Grant aid from the United States to the Thai armed forces ended in the late 1970s and today Thailand must pay for all its arms. Following Vietnamese troops' brief incursion into Thailand in June, the U.S. airlifted already purchased guns and ammunition to Thailand, although many Thais considered it only a token gesture.
Many diplomats believe that Abramowitz would like to see substantial military aid to Thailand but is resigned to the current U.S. position.
After Thailand, Abramowitz's chief concern is the joint relief effort in Cambodia. On this issue, his thinking coincides with the Thais' almost precisely, and they work together closely.
In the spring of 1979, the U.S. Embassy's political section began voicing some of the first warnings of upcoming famine in Cambodia. Repeated cables to Washington got little response.Abramowitz "was almost obsessed with the need to make Washington aware," recalls one diplomat.
Around June that year, he arranged a $300,000 grant from the United States Catholic Relief Services, a private aid agency, to begin trucking rice to the Cambodian border.
When thousands of starving and feverish Cambodians staggered into Thailand a year ago, world interest was suddenly focused on the ambassador's pet issue. With donations pouring in, the Thai government opened its doors to any Cambodians who arrived.
Abramowitz now had new stature as chief bankroller for the joint relief effort (U.S. funds account for about a third of the Cambodia program). His hand on the purse strings, plus his own abilities as a negotiator, enabled him to get his way on most issues.
Soon he developed an adversary relationship with the two agencies coordinating the joint effort, UNICEF and the International Red Cross. At issue was how best to get food to hungry people.
Agency officials tended to stress working through the Heng Samrin government, no matter how inefficient it was, as it controlled most of the country's people and territory. Abramowitz argued for a program that would include large handouts at the Thai border for people passed over by Samrin's network.
Much of the border food was diverted to Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei guerrillas. Aid agency staff members, many of them European liberals, began to wonder if U.S. insistence on a border program was not part of an attempt to revive American's long war with Vietnam.
Some of them concluded Abramowitz was irrationally hostile toward Vietnam.
Aid officials conferring with him earlier this year, for instance, were amazed to hear him say that Vietnam was diverting large quantities of Cambodian relief, a charge that other embassies had long dismissed for lack of evidence.
When the Red Cross placed a limit on how much rice seed could be distributed at the border, Abramowitz was enraged. With $4 million from a U.S. aid fund, the embassy financed close to 20,000 additional tons of seed for the border operation.
For his work on behalf of Cambodian refugees, Abramowitz is to receive the Joseph C. Wilson Award for achievement in international affairs late this month.
How long he will continue on the job, however, remains uncertain. As a confidant of Carter appointee Richard Holbrooke, Abramowitz might be replaced if Carter loses the election.