Years ago, former Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies said “it is a good thing to be friends by agreement, but it is better to be friends in the heart, in the spirit, and in the mind”. He talked about Thailand when he said that.
As Australia’s ambassador to Thailand, decades after the famous words were spoken, I was surprised by how the sentiment still applies today. Especially during challenging times.
Our two countries have passed the Covid storm better than most. In fact, according to the Global Covid-19 Index, Australia and Thailand are respectively ranked number one and number two in the recovery response. This is evidence of a difficult, but necessary, decision taken by leaders in Bangkok and Canberra to close down our community. This decision requires all of us to sacrifice, but positions us well for the recovery phase.
Australia wants to work with Thailand on this task. We have funded a new 30 million baht program to support Thai border officials – workers at the front of the pandemic – to protect Thailand from cross-border threats. Australian scholarships will support Thai doctors to study epidemiology in Australia – training that will help Thailand overcome Covid-19 and prepare for future crises.
Our two governments have also worked closely together to help hundreds of Australians and Thais who have been displaced back to their respective countries. It’s great to help reunite our citizens with their loved ones, where they can enjoy the comfort of home.
Apart from close bilateral cooperation, Australia and Thailand work together on the global stage. We both support the resolution of the World Health Assembly which calls for an independent review of Covid-19. Australia is one of the few countries that led the push for review.
This resolution is committed to an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of Covid-19. The world community needs to understand why and how the plague began. We have to work collectively to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The resolution provides a clear mandate to identify the source of Covid-19 to reduce the risk of a similar virus.
A record of 145 countries registered as co-sponsors of the resolution. It was truly a moment of global consensus.
Unfortunately, this pandemic also highlights some darker aspects of state behavior.
Australia and Thailand recently signed together with 130 countries and other observers in a UN statement warning that Covid-19 had “created conditions that allowed the spread of disinformation, false news, and artificial videos to trigger violence, to divide people”.
Some countries have used pandemics as a cover to spread disinformation and lies. The European Commission issued a report in recent weeks which concluded that foreign actors and countries had carried out disinformation campaigns targeted to undermine democratic debates and worsen social polarization, while improving their own image. A day later, Twitter revealed more than 32,000 accounts as information operations related to the country.
To defeat Covid-19, we need to work together. Spreading false news and misinterpreting the origin of the virus only serves to weaken the sense of shared purpose.
We want to work with Thailand to revitalize our economy: to maintain supply chains, revive trade in goods and services, and finally reopen international travel so that tourists, families, business people and students can return to free travel between our countries.
The student market is very important for Australia and we are exploring how international students, including Thailand, will be able to return to Australia. There have been several recent claims that Australia might be less safe for students because of the risk of racist attacks.
This is not true. Australia is one of the safest countries in the world. It is the most successful multicultural country in the world. Australia welcomes students and visitors from all countries – including 260,000 Chinese student enrollments in 2019 alone – and their experience is very enriching and positive.
Through Covid-19 we have seen some of the best that the human spirit has to offer – we have all made small personal sacrifices and witnessed others, such as front-line health workers, make much bigger ones.