Doorstop interview, Bangkok, Thailand

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP: Good morning. I am delighted to be here in Bangkok in my capacity as Australia's Foreign Minister. It is my first visit to Thailand since becoming Foreign Minister although I have visited this beautiful country on many previous occasions. The reason behind my visit is to underscore the importance that we place on this valuable relationship. I'm looking forward to meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister during the course of the day. I will reiterate Australia's support for a return to democracy here. We look forward to welcoming Thailand back into the countries that embrace democracy as a fundamental value.

I have met with a number of business people here today and that highlights the potential that we see in an increased trade investment relationship between Australia and Thailand. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Australia-Thai Free Trade Agreement or TAFTA, and I think it's a timely opportunity to review that agreement. It has served both countries well. Indeed trade has doubled between our countries since the trade agreement entered into force. There are other areas including in the investment and services sector where I believe there is great potential.

Today I will also be formally launching the New Colombo Plan, an initiative of the Australian Government, to provide Australian undergraduates at our universities with the opportunity to live and study and work in countries in our region. Thirty eight countries in the Indian Ocean - Asia Pacific have become partners with Australia under the New Colombo Plan, and that includes Thailand. And I hope to see Australian students study here, gaining new perspectives, new insights, new ideas and coming back to Australia to add to the productivity and prosperity of our nation, but also setting up links and networks and friendships that we hope will last a lifetime. So it will be a very busy agenda and I'm certainly looking forward to a productive day here in Bangkok and an opportunity for higher level engagement between our two governments in the weeks and months ahead. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Minister, Gwen Robinson, Nikkei Asian Review. You're also seeing the key opposition politician Abhisit and former Prime Minister Yingluck. I was just wondering if you could tell us what kind of messages or, you know, priorities that you've got in discussions with them?

JULIE BISHOP: Well it is a common practice for me as Foreign Minister to meet with representatives from all sides of politics when I visit a country and so I am taking the opportunity to meet with the former Prime Ministers. Again it's an exchange of ideas and views. I'm here to listen to better understand the situation in Thailand and to gain some understanding of where politics will head over the coming months and years, and so I am looking forward to meeting with them, to gaining their ideas and perspectives. Likewise, I'm sure we'll have a very full agenda in my discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister.

JOURNALIST: Tim Shaw, Seven News. Foreign Minister, asking Burma to be more tolerant of the Rohingya and giving them citizenship would solve one of the region's biggest problems. Is Australia going to seek that solution? They are the most vulnerable in this community and in the region.

JULIE BISHOP: I have visited Myanmar on a number of occasions since becoming Foreign Minister and it's an issue that I have raised at a government level in Myanmar with the relevant Ministers. And the protection of minorities, the support for minorities and ethnic groups is one of the issues that I raise in countries where it is a challenge, so of course it's a matter that Australia will continue to raise. We want to see a prosperous, stable, secure region, and we want all citizens to reach their potential, and Australia is very keen to raise these issues. We don't hector other countries, we don't lecture them, but we talk about our experience, our perspective and seek to work cooperatively with them in areas including human rights and the support for minorities.

JOURNALIST: This is Suppattra from ABC. Do you think Thailand is moving fast enough toward democracy, and what would be your suggestion toward Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha?

JULIE BISHOP: This is clearly a matter for the Thai people. Thailand has a long history. There have been some political challenges. Australia has made its views known in recent times about the political challenges. We want to support Thailand in returning to democracy. But ultimately the pace will be determined by the support that the Thai people give to this process. But I'll be very interested to hear from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister as to progress. There are constitutional issues to be determined. There is the timing around that, and I'm here to understand the proposed process.

JOURNALIST: Minister, business confidence...


JOURNALIST: Rob Corben, Australian Associated Press. Do you feel that Thailand is moving back on that, the road map? Are you satisfied, is Australia satisfied by their moving, it's moving in the right direction?

JULIE BISHOP: We certainly follow this issue very closely and we are concerned to ensure that all countries in our region are peaceful and stable, and hopefully prosperous. We were concerned by the events here in Thailand and we stated so at the time. But my visit here is designed to understand more about the progress that is being made and the government thinking around a return to democracy and the timeframe in which that will occur. So I'm here to understand more deeply the process that we understand is underway.

JOURNALIST: So it's a rebuilding of the relationship after some souring twelve months ago?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that's not the way I would describe it.

JOURNALIST: Moving outside Thailand, how do you view the relationship between Indonesia and Australia right now after you have, your government has withdraw the Ambassador as well as cutting the aid fund from the Indonesian Government?

JULIE BISHOP: The Ambassador to Indonesia...

JOURNALIST: How do you view your relationship...

JULIE BISHOP: The Ambassador to Indonesia from Australia has come back to Australia, and you will appreciate that that is a sign of our displeasure at the way two Australian citizens were treated. And Australia has long been on the record as opposing the death penalty either at home or abroad. This is an issue that we have with a number of countries in our region, not only Indonesia. We have a very broad and deep relationship with Indonesia across a whole range of areas and we have very close cooperation in countering terrorism, people smuggling trade, drug trafficking, transnational crime. And we will continue to work together, for they are issues that not only affect our two countries, but affect the region. We also have economic ties, educational ties, and these matters must continue. So while there are tensions over the issue of the death penalty applying to Australian citizens in Indonesia, we do know that there is a long term relationship that is exceedingly valuable to both countries and we will continue to work towards that.

JOURNALIST: Minister, Ambassador Robilliard on the 26th of January launched Australia-Asia program to combat trafficking in persons, a very important initiative for Australia and Thailand. Can you update us on that progress in the last four months, particularly in line with the discovery of mass graves in Northern and Southern Thailand of Rohingya people?

JULIE BISHOP: This is a very important initiative on the part of the Australian Government and I thank Ambassador Robilliard for launching it because it does emphasise how seriously we take these issues and how Australia is prepared to work with other countries to counter this form of human trafficking and people smuggling and other broader transnational crime. The discovery of those bodies and the circumstances surrounding that in Southern Thailand are shocking. It's obviously a terrible tragedy, but I acknowledge the fact that the Thai Government has responded in a timely fashion, that there is to be an investigation, and we certainly welcome that, and we'll continue to provide support and levels of cooperation where we can. We have had a long history of working cooperatively with Thailand on these issues, and through this program, and through our respective agencies we will continue to work to stamp out these terrible and shocking scenarios that have occurred.

JOURNALIST: Is Cambodia an opportunity for relocation of refugees, particularly Rohingya? Has Australia, has that relationship in place with Cambodia?

JULIE BISHOP: Well that would be a matter for discussion between Cambodia and relevant authorities. Australia has an arrangement with Cambodia for asylum seekers that have been found to be genuine refugees to be resettled in Cambodia. And this is part of what the Bali Process envisaged from the outset, that this is a regional challenge. It's not for one country to carry the burden of resettlement, and in the case of Cambodia, I visited there and they were very keen to gain more workers, more skilled workers, and if people wanted to live in Cambodia then they were keen to resettle them. I think that this is a very mature approach by a country like Cambodia seeking to lift itself from the status of a developing country to a developed country. It has seen how immigration has worked for other countries in building economic resilience and economic sustainability. So Cambodia has agreed with Australia that they will share the resettlement burden, and it may well be that other countries will likewise be interested in doing so.

JOURNALIST: Minister, quick question. You're here for the launch of the New Colombo plan. How important in education in terms of the economic relationship in Thailand and Australia?

JULIE BISHOP: We have a very strong educational relationship dating back to the original Colombo Plan in the 1950s and 1960s. That was a plan where students from the region came to study in Australian universities and gained Australian qualifications and made friendships with Australians that lasted a lifetime. The New Colombo Plan is the reverse. We are supporting Australian undergraduates from across our universities to live and study in the region. Thirty eight countries in the Indian Ocean - Asia Pacific have signed up as partners for the New Colombo Plan and we're seeing our first tranche of students coming to Thailand this year. They are studying in various universities across a range of disciplines and courses. They are also getting the opportunity to do an internship or work experience in a company, Australian or Thai, operating here in Thailand. I think that this is a significant investment in our future. It's a significant investment in the bilateral relationship as more young Australians and more young Thais interact and engage with each other. Education has been fundamental to the relationship over many years and we have a significant number of Thai students studying in Australia, about twenty six thousand. Thailand is the sixth largest source of foreign students for Australia. So we place a very high value on it. But it's that intangible that is so important, understanding each other, getting greater perspectives and insights on the cultural, political, economic life in each other's country. And I encourage our students to consider Thailand as a destination under the New Colombo Plan. Likewise, we warmly welcome Thai students to Australia to study in our institutions. Thank you.

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