ABC AM Program: Interview with Chris Uhlmann

  • Transcript, E&OE

CHRIS UHLMANN: Authorities are urging Australians in Thailand to exercise a high degree of caution, warning the situation is volatile. Julie Bishop is the Foreign Minister. Welcome to AM.

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning, Chris.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Julie Bishop, how is the Australian Government responding to the military coup in Thailand?

JULIE BISHOP: Chris, we are gravely concerned by the announcement of General Prayuth, the Army Chief, that the military is assuming all government functions in Thailand. In one sense the coup has ended the months long political crisis, but only time will tell how this can be resolved. The caretaker government is no longer the government. A curfew is in place. The constitution has been suspended.

I've spoken to our ambassador in Bangkok, James Wise, and we're seeking more information from the authorities on what I see as a regrettable development. And we need to know the reasons for announcing the coup just days after imposing martial law on the basis that it was not a coup. So we are reviewing the situation. We're constantly monitoring developments, and we are reviewing the implications of the coup on government-to-government relations.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Well, the United States has taken preliminary steps to suspend military engagement and other assistance apparently is being reviewed. Are you reviewing ties or assistance?

JULIE BISHOP: We are reviewing the implications of this coup on our relationship with Thailand. At this stage I'm seeking more advice from our ambassador and our representatives in Thailand. Our concern, of course, is for the thousands of Australians who are in Thailand. At any one time there are probably about 28,500 Australians in Thailand but only about 5,500 of them are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

So we are keen to get the message out to Australians that they should register their travel plans and ensure that they keep updated through the department website,, so that they can be fully aware of what's going on.

CHRIS UHLMANN: What is your advice to people who are considering travelling to Thailand?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, the curfew is not applying to people travelling to or from the airport. The airports are still functioning. If people are going to Thailand we urge them to exercise a high degree of caution, that they should register their travel plans on our Smartraveller website, that they should take out travel insurance because the situation could become very volatile, and for those living in Thailand or for those who are there, to abide by the curfew and to take the direction of the local authorities until such time as this coup has ended. We are asking people to exercise a very high degree of caution about their personal safety.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The BBC and CNN have been cut off in Thailand but apparently the Australia Network is still being allowed to operate. Does that show that you need some kind of diplomatic tool like that?

JULIE BISHOP: We understand the international satellite channels and the internet are still operating. It's only the local channels that have been suspended and they are only to show army media broadcasts. So this is typical of a military coup; that the army has taken over all of the functions of the government.

I understand that there is a national peacekeeping council comprising the chief of army, the service chiefs of the army, air force and navy and the chief of police. So they are essentially governing the country at present.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Just on another international issue, how do you as Foreign Minister explain to other countries that Australia is about to send genuine refugees to Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world?

JULIE BISHOP: Cambodia, like other countries, is part of the Bali Process and the membership for the Bali Process is committed to finding regional solutions to the problem of the people smuggling trade, and Cambodia is one of a number of countries who have come up with an alternative to Nauru and Manus and they have agreed to take refugees.

In fact, they were very keen to cooperate with Australia in this regard. Cambodia wants to lift itself from being one of the poorer countries to being one of the more successful countries in the region. Like others of the ASEAN countries, Cambodia is very keen to cooperate with the region, be part of regional solutions, not be a regional problem.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And how much money is Australia giving Cambodia for it to be part of that kind of solution?

JULIE BISHOP: We haven't seen the detail of the agreement. Cambodia has been talking about making an offer to us, I've not seen the detail of it, but they are talking about a number of refugees settling in communities. They were very keen on the idea of having people there who would be supported with a package - they were hoping that they would be able to get them jobs and housing and they would integrate them into the community. And the point is, people who are genuine refugees have been fleeing persecution and are looking for a safe haven. Cambodia is offering a safe haven.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Now on one last issue, Australian journalist Peter Greste has now been held in an Egyptian jail since late December. Is there anything more that the Australian Government can do to secure his release?

JULIE BISHOP: Chris, we are making contact constantly with the Egyptian authorities. I spoke again to the Foreign Minister only two days ago. I have rung him on a number of occasions to express our deep concern. The Prime Minister spoke to the President. The Attorney-General has rung the Minister for Justice, We are constantly raising the issue with authorities through our ambassador in Cairo.

We're also calling upon other governments who are closer to Egypt and will have closer relationships within Egypt than Australia to express their concerns and I am assured that a number of these governments have done precisely that. I'm deeply concerned that he's still in detention. He is the only foreign journalist who has still been detained. And then this situation where his lawyer didn't turn up is deeply regrettable.

But we are continuing to press the case that he was going about his business as a journalist. I am constantly reminded that Egypt has a legal system and that we should respect their legal system, but we are continuing to argue that he should at least not be detained.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, we'll have to leave it there, thank you.

JULIE BISHOP: Thanks, Chris.

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