The American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand: Its History and Its Growth
Reprinted from: T- AB, May- June 1985
The centuries called the “Dark Ages” saw trade and commerce in Europe almost at a standstill. Business was conducted on a barter basis for the most part until well into the 12th Century. Then, suddenly, businessmen rediscovered the fact that more could be accomplished by cooperating with each other than fighting constantly. They organized to present their wares to buyers through displays at community fairs which developed in the growing cities of Europe at that time.
Throughout the Middle Ages which followed, the merchant guilds grew ever stronger. Throughout central and northern Europe, they soon dominated all business except that in local produce and products. They controlled the movement of goods from the Mediterranean region northward and extended their influence into the Middle East by cooperating with Levantine, Persian and Arab traders who supplied luxury textiles, dyes, gems and, particularly, spices to all of Europe.
In 1599, the town council in the important port city of Marseilles, France, formed the first organization to be called a Chamber of Commerce. During the following century, other French cities set up similar chambers, and their growing success led King Louis XIV, in 1700, to order every French trading center, including those overseas, to establish a Chamber of Commerce.
As links between these many Chambers grew stronger, and as they successfully cooperated with the growing number of trade guilds, King Louis XVI came to fear their power as greater than his own. On the eve of the French Revolution, in 1789, he suppressed both the chambers and the trade guilds. A very few years later, in his effort to stimulate trade and industry, Napoleon Bonaparte approved their reestablishment.
Meanwhile, Chambers of Commerce were formed in other lands. In 1768 on the Isiand of Jersey in the English Channel and on the Island of Manhattan in America, chambers were organized. Before 1800, Chambers of Commerce were established in Leeds, Manchester, Dublin and Belfast, as well as in New York and South Carolina, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Similar organizations were in being in Belgium, the Netherlands and the trading cities of north Germany.
By 1870, at least 40 major American cities had Chambers of Commerce. Since then, the chamber movement has spread across America and around the world. Today, every small town in the United States has its own Chamber – each working to boost industrial development, promote tourism and in other ways improve the business climate in its area.
Every trading nation has its Chamber of Commerce, and an International Chamber of Commerce helps link them all together. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States is among the most influential organizations of businesses and businessmen in the world, with a large and busy permanent staff of experts at its headquarters, 1516 H St. N. W., Washington, D. C. 20006 across the park from the White House.
IN THE ORIENT
There must have been organizations similar to chambers here in the Orient several centuries ago. Oriental businessmen, craft guilds, even city and regional bodies, must have been structured along lines similar to Chambers of Commerce in the Western nations.
As Europeans penetrated the Orient from the 15th Century onward, the European merchant guilds related to Chambers of Commerce developed economic and political powers to control trading with this region. Eventually, they directed the colonial empires in India, Indonesia and Indochina, as well as the extraterritorial trading monopolies in Japan, China, the Philippines and Thailand. At that point, however, their basic purposes had changed and they were working to monopolize trade rather than to promote its development. They should not be considered as in the mainstream of developments which led to the Chambers of Commerce of today.
About 87 years ago, the first American Chamber of Commerce outside the United States was formed, in Paris, France. Today there are more than 50 American Chambers of Commerce – Amchams – in at least 31 countries and areas overseas. Still more are in the process of formation. Each of these Amchams is a voluntary association of firms and the men who manage them – American citizens and others – engaged in trade between the United States and the country where it is located. Each Amcham operates in cooperation with its host country’s business firms, U. S. affiliates, individuals and government.
Via a broad spectrum of activities, each Amcham works to develop mutually prosperous and amicable economic, social and commercial relations between the business and industrial interests of the United States and those of the hose country. Each also attempts to foster and to communicate abroad the beneficial concepts of American private enterprise.
None of the Amchams is a “policeman” within the business community where it operates. But by applying moral standards and by refusing membership to firms and individuals who do not adhere to ethical business standards, each has considerable influence in maintaining – among firms considered “American” at least – a level of business performance a cut above the community average. When, at the same time, an Amcham helps promote two- way flows of trade between the United States and its host country aboard, it has achieved its two primary objectives.
Considering that trade between the United States and the Orient dates back at least to 1784, when the 360- ton sailing ship, Empress of China, reached Canton from New York, that American businessmen have been active in this region since before the Civil War in the 1850s, it is remarkable that the first effort to organize an American Chamber of Commerce in this region did not come until after World War I in the Philippines. On the South- east Asian mainland, a start was made here in Bangkok only 29 years ago.
In 1955, there were only 10 bonafide American business firms in Thailand, and the actual U. S. business community consisted of only 60 persons. Informal meetings that year led to a decision to attempt to organize an American Chamber in Bangkok and to qualify it for membership in the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
The first formal meeting of the new Chamber was in March 1956. Lewis Davis, then manager of the Bank of America Branch here, was elected as the first president, with Reeve Hankins, of ROLIBEC/ RBH Insurance Center ( now HLR Group of Companies) named vice- president. Others among those responsible for founding the Chamber in Thailand included Mrs. Robert North of North Star Co., Albert Lyman of Tilleke & Gibbins, Lewis Cykman of Star of Siam, and a very few others no longer present in this country.
Within a short time after its formation, the new organization qualified for membership in the U. S. Chamber of Commerce – a status it maintains today. It registered with the Thai Government and became a member of the Thai Board of Trade. The president of the American Chamber automatically serves as a member of the executive committee of that body.
For the past 29 years, the American Ambassador to Thailand has acted as honorary president of the Chamber. Ambassadors Max Bishop, Alexis Johnson, Kenneth Young, Graham Martin, Leonard Unger, William Kintner, Charles Whitehouse, Morton Abramowitz and John Gunther Dean – all have accepted that role. But this honorary presidency is the only official connection between the U. S. Government and the American Chamber, which receives all its financial support and control from its membership and its policy direction from its elective officers. Any closer relationship with government would be inconsistent with
U. S. Vice- President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses AMCHAM members at the Oriental Hotel Bangkok in 1962