Insufficient interest? Australia, Thailand and Asia

Over at the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter Bandid Nijathaworn, a former Deputy Governor of the Bank of Thailand, has offered his “view from Bangkok” on the topic of Australia in the “Asian Century”. For the benefit of non-Australian readers it is worth clarifying that our government has recently embarked on a wide-ranging public policy review titled “Australia in the Asian Century”.

In this context, Bandid suggests:

For any Thai familiar with Australia, the Sydney Opera House, good wine, affordable quality education, beautiful cities and trustful business practices are things that easily come to mind when Australia is mentioned. All this indicates a higher recognition of Australia now for its strength as a country that offers quality and systematic processes, an impression that is probably shared throughout Asia. 

Among this list of characteristics the idea that Australia “offers quality and systematic processes” is a notable one, no doubt. Bandid’s piece is framed in terms of other general notions like “mutual long-term benefits” and “engag[ing] closely and constructively with Asia”. With these phrases in mind he goes on to suggest:

Australia’s vast expertise and experience can contribute importantly and usefully to Asia’s capacity and institution-building at all levels. Particularly important in this context is the public policy process and governance, issues that have become a challenge for most countries in Asia.

The idea that Australia should contribute to “public policy process and governance” in Asia has got me thinking.

The past 6 years of Australia-Thailand relations might show that such contributions, important and useful as they may be, are not as straightforward as they first appear. Engagement of the sort that Bandid advocates is built on sustained and unflinching mutual understanding. Recent episodes in Thailand-Australia relations, at least as refracted through the lese majeste law, have sometimes made this difficult (here is just one small example).

And we should not assume that it is only in Australia that there is a deficit of knowledge or insight about the other side(s). Earlier this week, and in a different context, I highlighted a throwaway line from a Pantip.com discussion:

ส่วนตัวรู้จักฝรั่งพอสมควร ไม่คิดว่าฝรั่งจะสนใจการเมืองไทยมากเพียงพอที่จะวิจารณ์แดกดันมาร์คหรอกค่ะ

We can translate that as:

Personally I know Westerners well enough: I really don’t think they are sufficiently interested in Thai politics to criticise Mark [referring to former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva] so satirically…  

Even though this point is made in gentle terms it signals a deeper expectation. Over at Pantip I was pleased to see that the next comment gratuitiously pointed towards New Mandala.

I’d like to think that, particularly in the long-run, forums such as New Mandala can contribute to the type of mutual understanding that is required. Of course, not everyone would agree. One translated Thai language opinion piece, introduced here with the title “New Mandala: cowardly, stupid and lacking in wisdom”, puts another side of the story. 

What do you think? How should Australia and Thailand interact, especially with respect to sensitive issues like “public policy process and governance”? Are some issues of public policy and governance simply too-hot-to-handle? What lessons can we draw from the past 6 years of interaction? What does this recent history tell us about the future of Thailand-Australia ties? And are there elements that are relevant to Australia’s ties with other Asian nations?

O, and if you’re interested in getting your hands on a fetching crossed-flag pin, as pictured, you can source them here.