By Maxmilian Wechsler
• Hopes to find a way around the proposal to relocate the Australian embassy to a more secure site in Bangkok
• Prime Minister Yingluck “impressive” in her meetings with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other ministers, and also in her engagement with the Australian business community
• Australia has “fond” memories of the contribution Thaksin Shinawatra made to relations between the two countries when he was Thailand’s PM
• Since the Thailand Australia Trade Free Agreement (TAFTA) came into force in January, 2005, trade has more than doubled, with Australia moving from being Thailand’s 12th largest trading partner to its sixth largest
• The major Thai export to Australia is gold, and the major Australian export to Thailand is also gold
• The murder of Australian travel agent Michelle Smith in Phuket in June got a lot of coverage in the Australian press, and it will affect people’s perceptions of Thailand
AUSTRALIA’S embassy, located on 1.2 hectares on South Sathorn Road, is an amazing place. Designed by Australian architect Ken Woolley, its architecture and landscaping are breathtaking.
The ambassador’s residence, where this interview was conducted, is a tastefully decorated house with a beautiful garden surrounded by a large pond. The compound is so quiet and serene, it’s almost like being in a tropical forest – until you look up and spot several multi-storey towers that weren’t there when the embassy opened in 1979.
“It is a very nice embassy,” agreed Mr. Wise. “And we are lucky to have it, but there is a proposal that we move, which is unfortunate. After the bombings in Bali and against our embassy in Jakarta, the Australian government came up with a new security template which says embassies should be set back from the perimeter fence by at least 30 metres on all sides. Sadly, this embassy doesn’t have that.
“A plot of land for the new embassy has been identified. It is actually bigger than this one. However, I still like to think that we can find way around it (to move),” added the ambassador.
“The embassy in Bangkok is one of our biggest in the world, with about 60 Australians and about 120 Thais working here. It has water, the greenery – you can’t believe that you are in the middle of Bangkok. It is pity that we might have to move, and I would love to think that we won’t.”
Born on Flinders Island about 20 kilometres northeast of the island of Tasmania, Mr. Wise studied at University of Tasmania in Hobart before transferring to Melbourne University to study Indian history. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in1982.
Mr. Wise is a career diplomat with 30 years of service and a strong interest in the history and politics of India. This is partly for personal reasons, as he explained: “I once travelled to India to collect some material for my history project, and I collected a wife as well. Her name is Teresa. We have two adult children, a son Matthew and a daughter Anita.
“My career at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade began with a posting as third secretary in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea from 1983 to 1985. The second assignment was in Moscow where I was second and then first secretary (1987-1991). My third posting was in Bangkok as the deputy head of our embassy (1995-1998). My first ambassadorial posting was in Kuala Lumpur as Australia’s High Commissioner (2003-2007). I returned to Bangkok in August 2010 as ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand.”
Mr. Wise has also held various positions in Canberra, including senior analyst at the Office of National Assessments (1991 to1994); director, Russia, East Europe and Central Asia Section (1994 to 1995); assistant secretary, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea Branch (1998 to 1999) and first assistant secretary of South Pacific, Africa and Middle East Division (2001 to 2002). His last position before coming to Thailand was in the ministry’s head office in Canberra, where he was first assistant secretary, Corporate Management Division, from 2007 to 2010.
He talked of his posting in Moscow in the early 90s: “To be in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev period was so stimulating. We didn’t always understand at the time, but it was a revolutionary period. The collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed revolutionary. I think history will judge it as one of the most peaceful revolutions ever. It was a huge structural change across a large part of the world’s surface.
“With some notable exceptions, during the late 1980s and early 1990s momentous change happened very peacefully. So it was naturally a very interesting time to be in Moscow,” explained the ambassador, who prior to his Moscow posting, learned to speak and write Russian.
“Currently, I am trying to learn Thai but as yet I’m not very good at it.”
Mr. Wise’s first visit to Thailand was in December 1978 while on his way to India. His first posting here ran from January 1995 to January 1998. “I witnessed two and half years of the economic boom and the first six months of the financial crisis,” he says.
“Our ambassadorial terms are normally three years but it is not uncommon for it to be extended for a year. I was lucky to serve four years in Kuala Lumpur. I would very much like to get four years in Bangkok, but that depends on decisions in Canberra.
“I try to travel outside Bangkok as often as I can but not often enough. One of the hazards of diplomatic life in most places is that diplomats spend more time than they should in the capital and not enough time in the rest of the country, and this is especially true here. To understand Thailand effectively you really do need to speak to people outside Bangkok, especially in the populous areas of the Northeast and the North. I have also visited the South on several occasions and been twice to the three southernmost provinces,” the ambassador said.
Australia and Thailand established diplomatic relations in 1952. The first Australian chancery was opened in the same year at 124 Gottsche Lane (Sala Daeng Soi 1) and the Thai mission opened in Canberra at roughly the same time. Both missions were elevated to embassy status in 1955. The Australian embassy later moved to Silom Road. The current embassy was officially opened on Australia Day, January 26, in 1979.
“As for the celebration of Australia – Thailand 60th anniversary of relations, the pinnacle was the official visit by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck to Australia last May,” said Mr. Wise.
“PM Yingluck made a very good impression in her meetings with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other ministers, and also in her engagement with the Australian business community. About 70 Thai business people accompanied her. Business was a very important focus for the visit. If you have to point to one element of the visit that portends well for the future it is in the area of commercial relations. A lot of good business was done during that visit. Khun Yingluck is a very pleasant person and easy to get on with,” Mr. Wise said.
“When Thaksin Shinawatra was the prime minister we also enjoyed very good relations with Thailand. During his administration we negotiated the free trade agreement which has made a major contribution to bilateral relations. We have fond memories of the contribution that he made to relations between Australia and Thailand.
“I can say without any hesitation at all that the real strength of Thailand is the quality of its public officials. It is very hard to find any country in the region which has as high a quality of civil servants as Thailand. Whether it is foreign or other ministries, if we have an issue we want to raise we can be very confident that we will meet with people who understand the issue and who are keen to understand Australia’s perspective.
“Equally important, Thai officials understand fully what Thailand’s interests are. They will always very professionally present that perspective, so we fully understand where there might be differences. The professionalism of the foreign ministry and the civil service is really impressive.”
This cooperative attitude is reflected in security alliances between the two countries as well. “We continue to have strong defense relations with Thailand, but another element of the security relationship which has grown is strong cooperation on law enforcement. Thai officials are very open to cooperation because, like us, they realize that if we cooperate on law enforcement we make both Thailand and Australia safer.”
“In the last seven years, the big story in Thai-Australian relations has been expansion in trade. We have become very important trading partners. Since the Thailand Australia Trade Free Agreement (TAFTA) came into force in January, 2005, trade has more than doubled. Australia has moved from being Thailand’s 12th largest trading partner to its sixth largest. And Thailand has moved from being our 12th largest trading partner to our ninth largest.
“More recently, especially during the past two or three years, the investment relationship has boomed. Investment between our countries totals more than A$15 billion, or 487 billion baht. Quite interestingly it is overwhelmingly Thai investment in Australia, around A$13 billion (422 billion baht),” the ambassador said.
“The total trade between Australia and Thailand in 2011 was just a little under A$20 billion (649 billion baht). The balance of trade favors Thailand because, since the TAFTA came into effect, Thailand’s exports to Australia have grown enormously. We opened up our economy to Thailand and Thailand has taken advantage of that, especially in the manufacturing sector, motor vehicles in particular.
“What we in Australia call ‘utilities’ and here ‘pick-up trucks’ are exported from Thailand, as well as car parts. Also equipment and machinery, air conditioners and products like that. A lot of gold is traded both ways.
“On the Australian side, our biggest exports tend to be commodities like aluminum, copper, coal, zinc and also foods like beef and dairy products. There has also been some growth in manufacturing goods.”
Asked whether trade between Australia and Thailand will be affected when Thailand integrates into the Asian Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, Mr. Wise answered: “I think it will. There’s a growing awareness in Australia that the emergence of the AEC means that over time there will be a more integrated market of 600 million people rather than the 10 separate markets that exist at the moment within ASEAN.
“Trade goes where the price is good. It is a transaction. If Thailand is still able still to sell its products at a competitive price, then Australia will be ready to buy them. If other countries in the region offer better prices, then we will buy from other countries. The same goes for Thailand; if it can buy coal cheaper somewhere else it will. This is the nature of trade.”
Interestingly, the major Thai export to Australia is gold and the major Australian export to Thailand is also gold, says the ambassador. “This is unusual. We are a very big gold producing country and Australian gold is used in the Thai jewelry industry. But Thailand has the Akara gold mine in Phichit province, which is a major Australian investment here. Gold from the Akara mine is exported to Australia for final processing.
Mr. Wise said: “A lot of Australian tourists come to Thailand in general and to Phuket in particular, because now there are direct flights from Australia to Phuket. Last year on these direct flights alone about 270,000 Australians visited Phuket. The total number of Australian visitors to Thailand last year was 856,000. Growth has been incredible, as the year before it was 723,000, with 660,000 visitors in 2009. So you can see a quite dramatic increase. As for Thais visiting Australia, 85,400 people visited in 2011.
“We estimate that between 25,000 and 30,000 Australians are in Thailand on any day of the year. Most of them are tourists, but we have here quite a big business community as well as a number of retired people. Our 2006 census showed that around 30,000 people living in Australia were born in Thailand.
“Naturally, if you have 856,000 people a year visiting Thailand, some of them will lose their passports or get into trouble of some sort, have an accident, and so on. Bangkok is by far Australia’s busiest consular post.
“In dealing with these issues, our consular staff gets a lot of support from the Thai government and the Thai private sector. In Thailand we have three Honorary Consulates: in Phuket, Chiang Mai and on Koh Samui.
“With so many Australians here, regrettably not every one of them is well behaved. Most of them are. I would say 99% or more of them observe Thai laws, have a very good time and go home with very positive impressions of Thailand. I hope they make a positive impression on Thais too.
“Unfortunately, very small numbers get themselves into some sort of difficulty or break Thai laws. When visitors come to Australia we expect them to observe Australian laws. Equally, when Australians travel abroad they should follow the laws of the land they are visiting,” the ambassador stressed.
Commenting on the murder of Australian travel agent Michelle Smith in Phuket in June and its effect on tourism, Mr. Wise said: “Sadly, a murder like that, for obvious reasons, gets a lot of coverage in the Australian press. The image it creates is negative. Such a tragic event gets so much coverage. It will affect people’s perceptions.”
Education and culture
“Education is another impressive element of our bilateral relationship. Around 21,700 Thais studied in Australia last year. They are studying in Australian universities, vocational colleges, English languages programs, primary and high schools.
“That’s a massive improvement from the mid-1990s, when we struggled to attract 2,000 Thai students. The educational relationship has broadened as well. There are very good links between our universities, much more research collaboration, many more exchanges between Australian and Thai professors, researchers and academics.
“Cultural exchanges are also a feature of bilateral relations, involving musicians, artists, exhibitions and so on. It is not a big exchange but it is important.
“More recently, we have been collaborating with Thailand in things like surf lifesaving and swimming programs. Australia has a well-known reputation in this area. We have shared our experiences and expertise to help Thailand establish swimming programs for young people and good life saving arrangements on the beaches.”
This cooperation has occurred under the auspices of the Australia – Thailand Institute (ATI), set up by the Australian government as a mechanism for funding activities which reinforce the existing bilateral relationship, build institutional linkages and also stronger people-to-people linkages.
“This is undertaken through a series of projects. The funding comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade but the ATI has a board whose members are drawn from the community. One is a public servant; the rest of the board is made up of people from the worlds of business, media, culture, education, and so on. So a wide range of people decides how the money will be spent,” said Mr. Wise.
Professional and private life in Thailand
Mr. Wise keeps abreast of developments in Thailand through the media, with the help from Ms Korbua Laorujijinda, the embassy media officer. “Khun Korbua goes through Thai newspapers and brings to our attention articles that give a good picture of what is going on in Thailand, both politically and economically. She also brings to our attention any articles that are relevant to bilateral relations.”
As with most diplomats, Mr. Wise’s social life is in many respects an extension of his work. “It is rare if I am not out for a function in the evening. I get a lot of invitations and try to select ones which present an opportunity to do something useful for Australia – Thailand relations or to find out more about Thailand. Our job as diplomats is to try to understand the country where we are posted. So my job is to understand Thailand, what makes the country what it is, and to try to interpret Thailand to the Australian government.
“Similarly, we have an important obligation to try to interpret Australia to Thailand, to ensure that people in Thailand, especially the Thai government and the Thai commercial sector, understand what Australian positions are and also understand what Australian strengths are.
“What I like most of all about being in Thailand is the opportunity to work on a major bilateral relationship. From a professional point of view it is always more rewarding if you are dealing with something that has real substance, as our relationship with Thailand has. As I’ve said, this is one of our biggest embassies. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to lead it. There are a lot of professional rewards from this job.
“On a personal level, I enjoy living in Thailand. I find it not only congenial but also very stimulating. It would be hard to name a culture which is more different from Australia’s than Thailand’s is, so you are constantly challenged. You constantly have to think in terms which are outside your normal experience. To try to understand these differences, and what they mean for Australia – Thailand relations, is truly stimulating.
“The other thing that strikes me is that, notwithstanding the differences, Australians and Thais find it very easy to get on with each other on a personal level. This is partly because Thais, like Australians, are pragmatic people. They are interested in results. But also like Australians, they like to have a good time, which helps to explain why at the people-to-people level Australians and Thais tend to get on very well.
“I don’t have any complaints about Bangkok, but I would say it is a pity that Bangkok doesn’t have more parks like Lumpini Park. My wife and I love this park. We walk there every morning. It is a very special place.
“The traffic doesn’t bother me. When I was here in 1990s it was much, much worse. At that time, Bangkok didn’t have the BTS or MRT, or some of the expressways that are here now. But they were being constructed in the mid-1990s, which meant that many existing roads were closed for construction. So it was very difficult. Traffic now is much easier.”
What are his biggest achievement and disappointment in Thailand? “I don’t think there’s anything at all I want to point to as a big achievement. If people are successful in their professional lives, it tends to be through the accumulation of small achievements rather than a very rare opportunity for some big thing. I am still waiting for the big one. But I hope that I will be able to achieve a few small things which cumulatively make some difference in the bilateral relationship.”
As for disappointments, Mr. Wise said there are “really not any in terms of this posting. But, like everybody else here at the time, I was upset to see the impact of the floods last year on the lives of the people of Thailand. In Ayutthaya and Lopburi, I saw firsthand how massive the floods were. I also saw firsthand how magnificently people responded – the victims themselves, their communities, the local officials and the government in general.”