Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

E&OE

8 May 2009

Press Conference: Stephen Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Australia, and Kasit Piromya, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Thailand.

Subjects: Bilateral cooperation, Damir Dokic, piracy, people smuggling, Defence White Paper, Kokoda Track, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. Can I, firstly, officially welcome Thailand's Foreign Minister Kasit to Australia and to Western Australia.

It's the Foreign Minister's first official visit to Australia. He has been to Australia before, but it's his first visit to Australia as Foreign Minister and his first visit to Perth, so I also welcome you very much to Perth.

And today, we have conducted the first meeting of the Australia-Thailand Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation.

So in the course of the morning, in a very productive and enjoyable meeting, we've traversed the array of bilateral, regional and global issues that are of mutual concern to Australia and Thailand.

The relationship between Australia and Thailand is a very long-standing, friendly, warm and productive one. At any given time, there are 20,000 to 30,000 Australians living and working in Thailand. In any given year, we will also have anywhere up to 700,000 tourists, Australian tourists, in Thailand. We also have significant people-to-people contacts. There are, for example, between 22,000 and 23,000 Thai students in Australia.

We're also very strong trading partners, and not only is Thailand one of Australia's largest tourist destinations, Thailand is also Australia's eighth largest bilateral trading partner.

So we have significant economic and people-to-people exchanges. In our discussions today, we have discussed how these can be enhanced. And we're very optimistic about our people-to-people contacts and our economic exchanges enhancing.

We've spoken about pursuing the so-called in-built agenda from the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which opens up the prospect of services.

We've spoken about enhancing our educational engagement, to look at also an engagement on science and research.

We also have very well-developed defence, security, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency contacts, and we're looking to build on these and to enhance them.

And I'm also announcing today that Australia will make a million-dollar contribution to assist in teacher training and teacher education for Thai teachers from the south of Thailand, particularly in English, in science and maths.

Of course, in addition to our bilateral exchanges, we work very closely regionally. Thailand, of course, is the current chair of ASEAN, and we've worked closely with Thailand in the ASEAN and ASEAN-related forums, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forums.

As chair of ASEAN, Thailand of course attends the G-20 meeting, and our respective Prime Ministers met in the margins of the G-20 meeting in London.

We also discussed the very successful Bali Process meeting in Indonesia, in Bali, last month. And in that context, we discussed people movement and refugee issues, including the Rohingyas and the Lao Hmong, and we had a very productive discussion on that front.

We also spoke about our shared commitment to multilateralism. We are both committed to working in international institutions, in particular the United Nations.

So having just concluded the inaugural meeting of the Thailand-Australia Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, we're looking very much forward to enhancing our engagement.

Thailand, of course, has gone through some difficult political times recently. One of the reasons I invited Foreign Minister Kasit to Australia very soon after his appointment as Foreign Minister was to make the point that in good times and bad, Australia is a good friend and a good partner of Thailand. And we look forward to working very closely with the Minister and with Thailand to enhance our bilateral relationship and our regional engagement.

So, Minister, we're very pleased to...

KASIT PIROMYA: Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: ... see you here.

KASIT PIROMYA: Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: We've published a joint communique, which you've got, and so I'd be very pleased if you could make some opening remarks.

KASIT PIROMYA: Thank you very much, Foreign Minister Smith and dear media colleagues.

Thank you very much, first to you and through you to the Australian Government for this very kind invitation, and second, for a very substantive discussion within the context of the inaugural Australia-Thailand Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation.

And I agree fully with what Foreign Minister Smith has just mentioned, including his observation and analysis.

I just want to put the emphasis on the word cooperation. It was really cooperation that we have discussed, which is cooperation that is very comprehensive in nature and does not only cover the bilateral cooperative activities, but it moved into the trilateral cooperation as in the case of the Rohingya or anything that has to do with the international crimes or the cross-border crimes that we would like to have a sort of a trilateral cooperation, for example, on the case of the Rohingya with the country of origin like Myanmar.

And second is that the cooperation also extended to the regional context of ASEAN and also into the multilateral cooperation. So the relationship for - between Australia and Thailand all along, since we have established the diplomatic relations almost 60 years ago, has always been on the positive note, to the mutual benefits of both peoples and countries all along. We practically never have any serious problem, or no problem at all. It's the question of how to make the relationship deeper and more to the benefit of the people.

And it has been so on the rise all along, and the more that we confront the regional or the international cooperation, both of us do not shy away but to meet the challenges and to try to work together as much as possible to move the bilateral cooperation further, and also to be part and parcel of the whole peace, security and the economic development of the region, South-East Asia in particular, and the Asia-Pacific on a larger basis and, I think, multilaterally.

So I'm very pleased to be here, not only the very nice way that I thought that it would be cold, so there's no need to have a sweater, it's more like a summer thing - so not only the weather was good, but the discussion here in this room and outside in the corridors and so on have been very substantive in nature.

And what is important is the cooperative spirit. And I think that gesture of friendship and the understanding for what has been going on in Thailand for the past few years and for the past few weeks in particular. It's only friends that can understand the other friend's difficulties and to be able to appreciate it and to give the encouragement verbally, [indistinct] and also I think in terms of the practical cooperative activities also.

So thank you very much, Minister, for the hospitality extended, for the goodwill and for the friendship. And I think we promised each other to move further as stipulated, I think, in this joint ministerial statement, as the media might have seen, that is very comprehensive in nature.

So it's very quite unique for any two countries around the world to have such a - so encompassing activities together, with so much future, so much at stake in a positive manner for the peoples of the two countries at hand.

So thank you very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Minister.

We're happy to respond to your questions on these matters. And if you have other domestic issues, I'm happy to respond to those once we've dealt with questions on these matters or questions to Minister Kasit.

QUESTION: Shall we do [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Very happy to do so.

QUESTION: All right. Sure.

Well, I just have a question for Mr Smith. Under the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement, Thai tariffs on virtually all Australian imports should be eliminated by 1 January next year. And my colleagues in Canberra are just wondering, given the impact of the global financial crisis, is this still on track to happen?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, both countries will continue to meet the obligations that we have set for ourselves when we signed up for the Free Trade Agreement in 2005. And it's one of the first Free Trade Agreements that Australia had signed up for, so the obligations of that treaty, both Australia and Thailand will meet.

We also had a very positive conversation today about enhancing and doing further work within the context of the free trade agreement.

There is what is described as an in-built agenda in the Free Trade Agreement which opens up other areas of liberalisation and economic activity, particularly in the area of services. And we agreed that we would start to progress those matters.

Secondly, I made the point Thailand, of course, is Chair of ASEAN, and in the last couple of months of last year, Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN signed up the Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, which is very significant. And we referred to that in the course of our conversation.

So we will fully meet the obligations of our free trade agreement.

We, of course, spoke in general terms about the adverse implications that the global economic and financial crisis has for both of us. But that won't cause us in any way to deflect from the benefits which come from the free trade agreement, nor will it deflect us from the good work that we can do in the future, arising out of the Free Trade Agreement.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

[Adjustments being made to microphones]

QUESTION: Did you want to answer the same question?

KASIT PIROMYA: No, I think I agree with the Minister, it's an obligation. And I think we have to honour our obligation; and any outstanding issue, we will have to do it. And we have agreed to meet inside the context of this in-built agenda that is the further continuation of the negotiation to open up the countries to both sides.

On the Thai side now with the new Constitution, we need to go to the Parliament to get the approval of the Parliament on the negotiation framework.

This Parliamentary relationship between the executive side and the legislative side is quite new in Thailand under the new Constitution. So that is the process that we are going through, we have to go through is - so the delay is more on the procedural matter inside the Thai Government and it's not because we do not want to come to the negotiating table with Australia.

We have the obligation to move forward; so we will do so. And let us settle the internal arrangement inside the Thai Government.

QUESTION: Do you agree with Australia's strategic assessment in its recent white paper that the possible US decline and the rise of China justifies an increase to military preparedness?

KASIT PIROMYA: No; not that particular one. When we talk about the military preparedness, I think it - a lot of it has to do with the anti-terrorist activities; the piracy in the Indian Ocean, especially around the Somalia, the north-eastern coast of African continent; the smuggling; and the - I think the shipments of - I think, maybe part and accessories of weapons of mass destruction and so on. So more has to do with the international crimes.

And then the second point is the military now is more involved in the so-called civic action, like the disaster relief, you know. And we have been - seen the example of the military backing up the civilian undertaking on the humanitarian and on the relief agency as far as the tsunami and the Nargis cyclone situation in Myanmar was concerned. In the future, we may have more earthquake and things like this and so on. So the role of the military in that sense is very important.

Second is that technology advances, so any military or any government, if there is more technology to protect the defence capability and the security interest, I think it's normal for any one country to do so. But whatever you've done in terms of your military build-up, the question of transparency is important, so if you tell other people what you are doing, for what purposes and so on, then it is part of the confidence build-up.

And for many countries we have been allies a long time because of the same ideology, same international securi… commitment for peace and security and so on. So why not?

STEPHEN SMITH: And I think the question was predicated on your characterisation, or categorisation of the White Paper, rather than the White Paper itself. The White Paper, of course, isn't aimed at one particular country, or necessarily, one particular region.

What that White Paper does make clear is, of course, is that our Alliance with the United States will continue to be our indispensable framework for our strategic security and defence arrangements. So that's the first point.

And, secondly, the White Paper looks forward over the next 20 to 30 years and Australia has to be attuned to any strategic implications which arise in that horizon.

Can I reinforce the point which Foreign Minister Kasit has made, which is our White Paper process is an entirely transparent one. We're proposing now to publish Defence White Papers every five years. We'll be completely transparent about the future ones, as we have about this one.

That, of itself, as the Minister has correctly said, is a confidence building measure and reduces what defence and foreign policy experts describe as the chances of miscalculation. And we have made the point to other nation-states that transparency on military modernisation is an unambiguously sensible thing to do. And that is precisely what we have done in the white paper context.

QUESTION: I have a couple more questions for Mr Kasit from, again, Radio Australia.

Thailand currently holds thousands of particularly Burmese asylum seekers, many of whom remain unscreened. What is Thailand doing to facilitate that process now?

KASIT PIROMYA: I think is to cooperate with UNHCR and the international community in particular on the processing for the resettlement. And I think the past few years, each year I think the average is almost 20,000 Burmese or Myanmar people being resettled in third countries. So the process will continue. It depends very much on the absorption, the capacity of the resettlement countries. But we are here to render whatever assistance that we can.

Second, I have visited the camps. And since we are a new government - we have been in government for about four months - so that we will work with the international community and international organisation like UNHCR to enhance the living conditions of the people still remaining in the camps, especially in terms of education, vocational training and the health arrangements, and so on.

And in my last visit to Myanmar about a month and a half ago, I have also talked to the Myanmar authorities about the repatriation and the safety and return and so on, inclusive of the designation of the areas where the people could be repatriated and to come under the safety arrangement with the socioeconomic development.

And then for the people, the Myanmar outside the camps, I think there are two types. I think the intellectuals and so on, and second the illegal workers. We have more than two million. The Cabinet decision a few days ago was to - what you call, to document them, register them and so on, so that the supply side of the Myanmar workers would be matched with the demand side of the Thai factories and so on. So we will try to put this into a more systematic basis so that we could look after them properly and to comply to the labour law of the international standards.

QUESTION: Is there anything you'd like to see from Australia to aid that process?

KASIT PIROMYA: Well, I think you can take more refugees [laughs], most welcome.

STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just add, in the context of the Bali Process Ministerial meeting in Bali in the middle of last month, I announced Australian humanitarian development assistance to Myanmar Rohingyas, particularly in displaced persons camps in Bangladesh; $3.2 million of assistance.

What I've indicated today to the Foreign Minister is that I will very happily have a look at what humanitarian or development assistance we can bring to Rohingyas who are displaced and in Thailand. And we think that can be a contribution that we can make to assist these processes.

We were very pleased with the success of the Bali people movement, or Bali Process Ministerial conversations, including on this issue, as we were more generally, whether it was push factors causing people to come from Afghanistan or more recently from Sri Lanka.

KASIT PIROMYA: I think on the Rohingya side, we both are in agreement that we could do more in terms of the direct socioeconomic development to the Arakan province in north-western part of Myanmar. And also the possibility of enhancing our socioeconomic or development assistance to Bangladesh because some of the boat people do come from Bangladesh and so on. So we need to help the development of both countries, Myanmar and as far as Bangladesh.

STEPHEN SMITH: I think what this does, it underlines one of the central points the Government's been making, which is push factors are causing difficulties for countries other than Australia in our region. And the only way we can address these is by working closely together, and that's certainly what Australia and Thailand are proposing to do, so far as Australia helping on the Rohingyas issue is concerned.

QUESTION: I just have one further question for Mr Kasit.

Just in regards to the ASEAN conference being held currently in Thailand. From Radio Australia, they'd like to know how Thailand can justify cooperation with Burma, given that Thailand bears a lot of the human cost of the repressiveness of the Burmese regime.

KASIT PIROMYA: We have more than 2000 kilometres of common border and we cannot move Thailand away from Myanmar.

[Laughter]

Second, is that it's not only the relationship with the Myanmar military regime. I think there are the Myanmar people that we have to look after. So whatever we can do to enhance the livelihood of our fellow human beings, fellow Burmese-Myanmar citizens, I think we will do our utmost.

So we have been providing health, education, infrastructure development; not to please the military regime, but more as fellow human beings, that they should have a better life.

The border threat between Thailand and Myanmar is very robust, so it's an enhancement of that, the quality of life is of utmost importance.

And, second, the more that the people can have a better life inside Myanmar, the less of the possibility of the inflow of the illegal migrants, and so on. So we do not want to be at the tail-end of the whole thing. It's better to develop inside Myanmar.

And I think - but by helping Myanmar as a whole, we have not shied away from telling the Myanmar military regime that they have to commit to the national elections by next year. Second, they have to release the political prisoners. And, third, they must show to the world the election law and the political party's law. I think this is the obligation on the part of my Myanmar friends that that's what they have to do. At the same time, that we are ready to cooperate with them for the betterment of life of the ordinary Burmese people, or Myanmar people.

STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just reinforce from Australia's perspective one of the central points that Foreign Minister Kasit has made, which is Australia has very tough financial and travel sanctions against the regime.

We are a country that has, for a long period time, been highly and deeply critical of the regime. We want them to return to democracy. We want political prisoners, including and especially Aung San Suu Kyi to be released. But that has not stopped us rendering humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar and that was most recently seen in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

And I complimented the Minister, as the Foreign Ministerial Chair of ASEAN, on ASEAN's good work with the United Nations in getting international humanitarian and development assistance into Myanmar in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

Myanmar, of course, is a member of ASEAN and so Australia's dealings with Burma are as a member of ASEAN. But at the recent Bali people process Ministerial meeting, I met with the Burmese Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, made all the points that Australia makes about the need for Burma to return to democracy. But also made the point that Australia wants very much to continue to render assistance to the Burmese people through humanitarian and other assistance.

QUESTION: As we understand it, you've announced further assistance for Sri Lanka?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, I have. The United Nations launched an emergency appeal on Monday of this week for further urgent humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka particularly for those civilians either in displaced people's camps or who remain caught in the conflict zone.

So today I've announced $10 million of assistance to the UN appeal; $8 million of that will effectively go to UN agencies like the World Food Programme and UNICEF. Two million dollars will go to Australian NGOs who are active in Sri Lanka, and the distribution of that will be announced in the near future.

Last night I spoke to Foreign Minister Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, who recently was in Colombo and Sri Lanka with UK Foreign Secretary Miliband. Foreign Minister Kouchner and Foreign Secretary Miliband will be going to New York on Monday of next week to raise these matters in the margins of the UN Security Council meeting and Australia will be supportive of their efforts.

We continue to make the points that Australia has always made about these very difficult and terrible humanitarian issues. I made these points recently by telephone to Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Bogollagama and we repeat them today. We remain concerned about the civilians caught in the area of hostilities. We want to ensure that there is international access to the displaced people's camps, particularly from the International Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. We want to ensure that humanitarian assistance is rendered and we think our contribution today will assist.

It follows on from an earlier contribution late last month of some $4.5 million. And it brings, I think, in the last 12 months to two years, Australia's humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka to over $20 million. So we're pleased to make a further contribution at the United Nations' request, in what is a terrible humanitarian situation.

QUESTION: The situation in Pakistan. What's the assessment of how many people have now been displaced by the fighting, and has Australia considered taking any action?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've been very concerned about Pakistan for some time. As you might recall, I was there in Pakistan earlier this year and the middle of last month I attended the Friends of the Democratic Pakistan Ministerial meeting in Tokyo, where I announced an effective doubling of Australia's humanitarian and development assistance to Pakistan.

That now stands in the order of some $120 million over two years. Part of that is aimed at displaced people in the North-West Frontier Province and the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where we think it's important to render both humanitarian and development assistance. Given the deteriorating situation that we've seen in recent days, I'm giving further consideration to what more, if anything, we can do for those displaced people.

We welcome, very much, the efforts of the Pakistani Government to confront the extremist and the terrorist threat that we find on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. For some time Australia has very strongly said to Pakistan and the international community that this threat is not just a threat to Afghanistan, but a threat to Pakistan's very existence and we welcome very much the response by the Pakistan Government and the Pakistan Armed Forces in recent days.

We also welcome, very much, the tripartite summit in Washington, between Presidents Obama, Zardari and President Karzai. Cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is absolutely essential. And cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the United States, is also essential.

In recent times we've seen the so-called Afghanistan Big Tent meeting in The Hague which I attended and the Pakistan, and the Friends of a Democratic Pakistan meeting in Tokyo which Australia also attended.

We're doing our bit, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. But we're looking at what more, if anything, we can do, given the thousands of Pakistanis who have become displaced in recent days.

I've seen reports of between 50,000 and 100,000 people. I'm not in a position to give any independent assessment of that, but we do know that thousands of people have been adversely affected in recent days and we're looking at what more we can do to help.

QUESTION: Do you assess it's not…

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: That's it please. We're…

STEPHEN SMITH: It's all right. Just [indistinct]. Sorry.

QUESTION: [Indistinct].

KASIT PIROMYA: Can I interject a bit on the - we are a small donor country, so we will also contribute to the Sri Lankan situation.

On the Afghanistan side, we have been providing assistance on the crop diversification program. So we will have a small role as a small donor country.

QUESTION: Sorry. The Kokoda Track…

STEPHEN SMITH: That's all right.

QUESTION: … has been closed. What advice have you received from the PNG Government, and have you been giving any advice to the Kokoda Track Authority?

STEPHEN SMITH: In the first instance, those matters would go to my colleague, Peter Garrett, the Minister for the Environment, who does the initial, or the day-to-day liaison with the PNG Government over the Kokoda Track. So I'll have to leave the detail of that to him.

QUESTION: You haven't had any…

STEPHEN SMITH: It's not an issue that I have dealt with this morning, so I'd need you to chase Mr Garrett in that respect, I'm sorry.

QUESTION: And the second question. Damir Dokic is in a Serbian jail. Was security beefed up at any of the Australian embassies after he allegedly made his threat to…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of points. Firstly, I never comment about the detail of security arrangements at our missions, other than to say we take any threat to our Embassies or High Commissions overseas very seriously. We take any threat to our officials overseas very seriously. And we always take, as quickly as we can, whatever steps are necessary in the circumstances, to protect our officials and our missions.

I note that Mr Dokic has been arrested and detained by Serbian authorities. He may well be charged with criminal offences under Serbian law, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further, other than to make this point. Mr Dokic is an Australian citizen and like any Australian citizen who finds himself or herself in trouble overseas, if he requires consular assistance, we'll do our best to render that.

Without reflecting in any way on the merits of any matter that might come before Serbian Courts, or be required to be dealt with by Serbian authorities, I think most Australians would think that the circumstances that have occurred are very sad and very unfortunate. And I think the thoughts of Mr Dokic's daughter will be uppermost in the minds of Australians, as a result of this most recent incident.

Okay. Thanks.

KASIT PIROMYA: Thank you very much. Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.

[Ends]

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