Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER Portrait photographs Jaran Lakkanawat
AUSTRALIA and Thailand have maintained an especially close partnership since establishing formal diplomatic relations in 1952, cooperating in areas of mutual interest including investment and trade, defense, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, migration and tourism. The fact that the Australian embassy in Bangkok is the country’s fourth largest out of almost 90 posts worldwide is testament to how important the land “Down Under” considers the Land of Smiles.
Mr Robilliard talked freely on a number of subjects, including the Australian Embassy’s relocation from Sathorn Road to a new site on Wireless Road.
The ambassador grew up in a small country town in Tasmania, a place called Huonville, which he described as ‘‘a picturesque centre of apple production.” He went to school there and in the Tasmanian capital Hobart. He then studied at the Australian National University in Canberra, graduating in the mid-1970s. He taught politics at the university for a couple of years and then in 1980 joined the Department of Foreign
Affairs, now called the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after the amalgamation of the two departments.
“The first time I came to Thailand would have been in the very early 1980s,” said Mr Robilliard. “At that time when one travelled from Australia to the Middle East or Europe, Bangkok was the usual stopping off place. I came here on my way to the Middle East. My first postings abroad were in Beirut and Damascus, with language training in Cairo.
In any case, he will be here to preside over the opening of the new Australian embassy now under construction on Wireless Road near the Japanese embassy. “We will move there most probably in the last quarter of 2016, sometime around September or October. The reason the embassy is moving concerns the issue of ‘setback,’ which is the distance between the building and the road. The current building is considered to be too close to the road.
“I know the current embassy is quite a famous landmark in Bangkok and made quite an impression when it was opened in 1979. It is a striking building and many people have very good memories of the embassy. The new building will be in a different style but hopefully people will appreciate it also as a significant piece of architecture here in Bangkok. It will provide us with facilities for our very large staff and also operate as regional hub for our embassies around Southeast Asia, particularly Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.
“Presently, we have close to 250 embassy staff – that’s Australian and local, permanent and contract staff. My understanding is that Bangkok is our fourth largest embassy in the world. I previously worked at the largest embassy, which is in Jakarta.”
The ambassador then outlined some of the main objectives he hopes to accomplish during his term. “I very much want to develop and expand the overall bilateral relationship. I think that there’s still work to be done on both sides to ensure that we understand the potential of each country and what each country has to offer.
“We want people in Thailand to understand that Australia is a sophisticated, developed economy, that we are not just exporting agricultural products and resources. We also have a lot of potential for partnerships in high-tech and other areas. Similarly, we want people in Australia, and Australian businesses, to understand that the Thai economy is also very developed. Thailand is different from much of the rest of Southeast Asia in terms of its economic development and economic potential. There’s a lot of opportunity for strengthening the trade relationship in particular.
“I would like to see in both Australia and Thailand a greater recognition of the importance of our relationship. I think that sometimes the significance is underestimated, especially in the media. I want to look at ways to improve trade and investment, but also people-to-people exchanges, especially in the field of education. I want to expand opportunities for tourism in both directions, and certainly we would like to see more Thais visiting Australia as tourists.”
Mr Robilliard said that typically when a new ambassador is appointed he or she goes through a consultation period in Australia before leaving for their post. He spent time in Canberra with key government agencies and departments, getting briefings and discussing issues. He also travelled around Australia. “Before taking up my post in Thailand, I visited Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. In fact, the only capital I wasn’t able to get to was Darwin. We have a very extensive preparatory process in order to ensure that when you arrive you have a good understanding of issues.
“I spoke to my immediate predecessor, James Wise, and to other former ambassadors. There have been a number of very distinguished ambassadors and I was glad for the opportunity to talk to them.”
Duties and responsibilities
“Obviously, my primary responsibility is to provide leadership at the embassy, to the staff and various departments and agencies that are represented at the embassy, and to lead the embassy’s engagement with the Thai government and the Thai people. Another very important responsibility is to ensure that proper, efficient consular services are provided for the many Australians who live in Thailand and visit Thailand. Overall, I am charged with ensuring that the relationship between Australia and Thailand is pursued effectively, efficiently and as positively as possible.”
The embassy includes many Australian government agencies in Thailand which are headquartered at the embassy. “For example, our Immigration Department is at the embassy. They are responsible for issuing visas to people wishing to travel to Australia. Associated with them is the Customs and Border Protection Service. They engage very closely with their Thai counterparts on people smuggling and customs-related issues.
“The Australian Federal Police also have a significant presence here. They work very closely with the Royal Thai Police on a range of transnational crime issues. Narcotic trafficking is especially challenging for both countries and we work very closely in that field. Our police forces work very closely together. It is obviously an area where I can’t give too many details because of the sensitivity involved, but we have had a lot of success cooperating on a number of very important cases,” Mr Robilliard said.
“The Australian Department of Defence has representation here, and the Defence Attaché and his staff have offices at the embassy. The military relationship between Thailand and Australia goes back a long time, to the Korean and Vietnam wars. Our military also cooperated in Timor-Leste [East Timor] before its independence.
“The Australian Department of Agriculture is also represented here, again working with their Thai counterparts on a range of issues. There are a number of other Australian agencies here as well. One of the most important is Austrade, the Australian Trade Commission. They have a very large staff here which concentrates on developing commerce between our two countries.
“Since I became ambassador, most of my focus has been on the embassy, on getting to know the personnel and their roles and responsibilities, to understand the various areas of activity the embassy is engaged in and, of course, to get to know ministers, officials and business people here in Bangkok,” said Mr Robilliard. He therefore hasn’t had a lot of time to travel around the country yet, but did go to Khao Lak for a memorial ceremony on the 10th anniversary of the tsunami. “It was, obviously, a very moving occasion. I was also in Phuket a few weeks ago, in part at least to attend the opening of the new Australian Honorary Consulate there.
“As I have been able to settle myself in Bangkok, I now have the opportunity to travel more around Thailand. I want to visit as many places as possible.”
“Thailand and Australia have a very long historical relationship and a diplomatic relationship going back 63 years – we celebrated the 60th anniversary in 2012. It is a relationship that has developed very positively and I think there is a lot of potential to make it even better and I am looking forward to working on that potential during my time here as ambassador,” Mr Robilliard said.
“Of course, trade is a very important element of our relationship. Thailand is Australia’s ninth largest trading partner and this has developed significantly during the 10 years of TAFTA (Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement). Australia is typically among Thailand’s top 10 trading partners, and interestingly, Thailand is the 16th largest source of foreign direct investment stock in Australia. This has grown substantially in the last few years and the investment is in very positive and constructive areas.
“Australia’s main exports to Thailand in 2013-2014 were educational products, crude petroleum, gold, aluminum and coal. Thailand’s key exports to Australia were passenger vehicles, heating equipment and iron, steel and aluminum structures. It is a very broad-based trading relationship, and as I said, one which has potential for further expansion.”
The ambassador said that in a sense tourism could be considered the most important trade area. “Last year 873,000 Australians visited Thailand. This was a slight drop from 2013, as was seen with other countries as well. Between September 2013 and September 2014, there were about 76,000 Thai visitors to Australia. This is quite a significant number too, although more than ten times as many Australians came to Thailand as Thais went to Australia. I’d really like to see more Thais taking the opportunity to visit Australia. Hopefully with the Australian dollar going down in value over the past few months, this may encourage more Thais to visit.
“Educational links are another very important part of our relationship and they are growing. There are now about 22,000 Thai students studying in Australia and we would like to see more. Thai students typically have a very positive experience in Australia. This year, under the New Colombo Plan, the Australian government will support about 160 Australian students to study and take part in a work placement program in Thailand.”
Mr Robilliard noted that the Australian government’s international merit-based scholarship program – Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships – is open for Thai citizens from all fields of study. Applications are taken April to the end of June each year. There are four types of scholarships and fellowships: postgraduate scholarships for masters PhD students; postgraduate research fellowships; vocational training scholarships; and executive fellowships for professional development. For 2015, 19 Thais were awarded with the Endeavour scholarships. Since the program started in 2007 about 155 awardees have been from Thailand.
“One of the things I have been very keen to do since I arrived is to try to get more Thais awarded scholarships and fellowships. We have been involved in a dialogue with Thai government, bureaucracy and institutions to encourage people to apply and to make sure the applications are high quality, as this is a global program.”
Asked about the number of Australians residing in Thailand, Mr Robilliard replied: “This is always a rather difficult figure because while we encourage Australians to register with the embassy, they don’t always do so. But we think there are approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Australians residing in Thailand at any given time. It might be higher, and the figure fluctuates.”
Relaxation and hobbies
As for his free time, Mr Robilliard responds: “I do a lot of reading. I have always been a big reader. I spend a lot of time listening to music. Recently I went to a very nice performance by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, with a wonderful Korean-German violinist. I have been very pleased with the quality of the orchestras here, like the Bangkok Symphonic Orchestra, Bangkok Sinfonietta and Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra. The Prince Mahidol Hall is a very beautiful concert hall too. The only problem is finding the time to go and it is quite a drive to get there.
“I also enjoy the cinema and I very much enjoy, when I have the time, watching DVDs in the evenings. I have listed sit-down pursuits, but I also enjoy walking a lot. Bangkok is good for that because it is relatively easy to get around,” Mr Robilliard said.
“It is really a great honor and pleasure to be the Australian ambassador to Thailand. It is an important relationship and I am very aware that there have been a number of extremely senior distinguished Australians who have served in the position. Similarly, there have been many very distinguished Thai officials serving as ambassador to Australia. This is a reflection of the importance placed on our relationship in both countries."
“I very much look forward to spending three or four years engaging with Thai ministers and officials, with the public and private sectors, business people and, of course, ordinary Thais, in further developing this relationship and improving it.”
HE Paul Robilliard hosted a reception to celebrate Australia Day (26 January) on January 27 at the Hyatt Erawan Hotel. The event was attended by Thai and foreign diplomats, top business people and other distinguished guests. Every guest received a brochure with an introduction from the ambassador, followed by information on bilateral cooperation between Thailand and Australia. Here are some excerpts:
• We look increasingly to ministerial and high-level exchanges between our governments in 2015. We share many strategic interests with Thailand, and we work with Thailand in important regional and other multilateral forums. We will continue to support Thailand’s political and constitutional reforms process in 2015.
• We work closely with the Thai authorities to address barriers to trade between our countries and to encourage broader trade liberalization.
• The Australian government’s regional assistance programs help Thailand respond to transboundary health threats, improve regional water management, safeguard human security, and promote economic integration.
• The Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons in Thailand is working with the Royal Thai Police and Ministry of Justice to strengthen Thailand’s criminal justice response to human trafficking, particularly in the fishing industry.
• Over 22,000 Thais are currently studying in Australia, and the Australian Government will support 160 Australian students to study and undertake work placements in Thailand in 2015 under the New Colombo Plan.
• Our Infrastructure Office in Bangkok works closely with the Thai DCA, Marine Department and Airports of Thailand in 2015. Projects include regional workshops on ‘best practices’ in aviation and maritime security, assisting with Thailand’s national security framework and working with Airports of Thailand to develop supervisor selection and training processes.
• Australia’s Department of Agriculture works to deepen the agricultural relationship between Australia and Thailand. The complementary nature of Thai and Australian produce makes agricultural trade ultimately beneficial to both countries.
• Thailand is Australia’s ninth largest trading partner. Bilateral trade has grown substantially since the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement’s launch in 2005.
• Australia supports training for more than 100 Royal Thai Armed Forces members each year, ranging from short single service courses to scholarships providing tertiary study. Australian and Thai military units also jointly participate in a range of exercises and other training activities. Major activities in 2014 included Exercise Pitch Black in Australia, in which the Royal Thai Air Force deployed the Gripen aircraft (the first time it had done so outside Thailand), and Exercise Chapel Gold in Thailand which focused on counter-insurgency operations.
• The Australian Federal Police (AFP) works with Thai enforcement agencies on investigations, prosecutions, extraditions and other criminal matters. In the past year, the AFP and Thai agencies cooperated on over 20 major operations against transnational and organized crime, including child abuse and drug trafficking.
• The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service undertake enforcement activities with the Thai Customs Department, the Thai Marine Police and other agencies to counter common threats.
PAUL Robilliard is a senior career officer with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Before his posting to Thailand as ambassador he was First Assistant Secretary, South and West Asia Division.
Prior to this, he served twice as Head of the United Nations Security Council Taskforce (July – October 2013 and November 2012 – May 13) and served in between as Senior Adviser, International, in the Prime Minister’s Office (May–July 2013).
Mr Robilliard has served overseas as: Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta (2009–2012); Consul-General at the Australian Consulate-General in Honolulu (2001–2004); Ambassador to Syria and Lebanon (1992–1995) and had an earlier posting in Singapore (1986 –1989).
In Canberra, Mr Robilliard has served as: First Assistant Secretary, South and West Asia, Middle East and Africa Division (April – November 2012); Assistant Secretary, Afghanistan and Iraq Branch (2008); Head of Iraq Taskforce (2006 – 2008); Assistant Secretary, North East Asia Branch (2004 – 2006); Assistant Secretary, Parliamentary and Media Branch (1999 – 2001); Assistant Secretary, International Organizations Branch (1998 – 1999); and Director, Executive Liaison Section (1996 – 1998).
Mr Robilliard holds a Bachelor of Arts with honors from the Australian National University in Canberra.
He is married to Mrs Hanan Robilliard and has two daughters, Christine and Emma.