written by Agneta de Bekassy
On February the 6th, photographer Daniel Herron and I went to visit the Australian Ambassador to Thailand H.E. Paul Robilliard at the new and very modern embassy residence on Wireless Road.
The new Australian Embassy and its residence are extensive buildings with lots of bare brick and concrete and a very modern, quite minimalistic architecture.
When you pass the heavy metal doors you escape the noise and bustle of Wireless and Rama IV Roads. Ambassador Robilliard and his media officer Ms Pananya Jira-Alongkorn, Belle, welcomed us. (Belle explained that she got her nickname because her mother was fond of the story about “Beauty and the Beast”.) We were shown into an expansive reception room decorated with contemporary furniture and works of Australian indigenous art and a Tasmanian artist who the Ambassador knows personally, and a grand piano.
I asked the Ambassador if he played the piano, but he said “unfortunately not”. This new residence is different in architecture and design, than the past one which was located on Sathorn.
I asked a bit about Paul’s background and found that he was born in England and both parents were teachers. At the age of 3 months, they moved to a small country town in southern Tasmania. This is also where Denmark’s beautiful Crown Princess Mary, comes from.
As did Errol Flynn. Paul went to school in the small Tasmanian town, but later on studied at the Australian National University in Australia’s capital, Canberra. I was curious to know if there were more diplomat’s in his family, but Paul shook his head and said no. He had not thought about a diplomatic career himself, as he was more interested in an academic career. Sometimes it just happens, we call it destiny?
In 1979 he happened to see an interesting advertisement in the paper for the Foreign Service. He took the chance, applied and was accepted. His first post as an Ambassador was in Syria and Lebanon in 1992. At that time Lebanon was recovering from the recent civil war. He had served previously in Lebanon and Syria between 1982 and 1984. In Lebanon he met his future wife and they were married in Byblos in 1994.
His wife was at that time working in the Lebanese parliament. They have two daughters, one studying in Sydney and one in Canberra. Those years were interesting he acknowledges. I asked if he could speak Arabic and he told us he studied it in Cairo, Egypt in the early eighties. All together he stayed just over three years in Syria/Lebanon.
Before Bangkok, he also served in Honolulu as Consul General and later on became Deputy Ambassador in Jakarta, Indonesia. In the late 1980s he was in Singapore for three years, but that was before Syria/Lebanon. He has had a range of jobs at headquarters in Canberra as well as working in the offices of the Australian Prime Minister (Julia Gillard) and an Australian Foreign Minister (Gareth Evans).
In October 2014, he came with his wife to Bangkok as Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand. The Australian Embassy in Bangkok is the country’s fourth largest Embassy in the world. Well over 200 people work in the Embassy. I asked him about his special “niche” – what are his goals and the most important objectives he wants to achieve during his time in Thailand?
Almost every Ambassador has a topic they care particularly about. The Swedish Ambassador for example is deeply engaged in gender equality and works hard for all people’s rights. Paul said he has very close cooperation with the Ambassador Staffan Herrström and shares his passion in this matter. They are both “HeForShe” Ambassadors.
Of course a very important topic is to strengthen the relationship between Australia and Thailand. That relationship is both very broad and deep and covers a wide range of areas. The economic and commercial relationship is very important for both countries, with over $20 billion dollars of two way trade and significant investment from both sides.
The military relationship is a long and important one and there is important cooperation between the two countries law enforcement agencies. Australian tourism to Thailand has been significant for many years (the Bangkok Embassy is Australia’s busiest consular post) and Thai tourism to Australia is growing. Education is also important. 30,000 Thai students study in Australia and this year 450 young Australian undergraduates will come to Thailand under the New Colombo Plan to study and do internships.
Australia Thailand diplomatic relations stretch back over 66 years, and the two countries work together on a range of regional and international issues. Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner and in March the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, will host the leaders of the ten ASEAN countries at a Special Summit in Sydney.
I asked if the Ambassador had experienced any serious difficulties since he arrived in Thailand and his answer came rapidly; “not at all, the Thai people are friendly and welcoming”. Paul is both an early bird and a night owl. He prefers to get to the office very early and clear his desk before the telephone starts ringing and the work of the day starts in earnest. During the week he hosts several events at the residence – breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions.
He tries to attend as many of the other embassies national days as possible and has an extensive range of meetings with Thai officials and the private sector, and speaking to various seminars and conferences. Not much time left for private entertainment. If he and his wife do find some time off, they enjoy going to concerts and they are avid opera fans. They have frequently enjoyed the Dance and Music Festival that takes place every year, and they have also visited the beautiful concert hall Sala Sudasiri Sodha in Lad Prao several times. Reading, walking and the cinema are also popular free-time pastimes.
What about travelling was my next question. “Oh, I have travelled a lot in Thailand and enjoyed it all but I especially like Chiang Mai which I first visited in 1987. Life is calmer and the air is cleaner and fresh up in the north and it’s just beautiful” he says. And of course places like Phuket have been a travel destination. When it comes to food, Paul says he likes more or less everything.
He enjoys Thai food and he is full of praise for his Thai chef at the residence. “Having a good cook is important for an Ambassador and I’m lucky to have on the best in Bangkok.” Do you have any special memories of your time in Thailand so far I asked; “Yes, I must mention the cremation of the late, beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. That was a memorable event and I was proud to be among the guests attending from all over the world.
It was a sad day for all the Thai people and an era is gone, the late King will be missed by us all.” When your time as Ambassador in Thailand comes to an end, where would you like your next post to be? “Well, I really don’t have any preferences. I’m proud to represent my country wherever it will be”, a good answer I replied! Paul’s wife has also settled well in Bangkok and like most spouses, she is busy with SHOM (Spouses to the Heads of Mission (Ambassadors) organisation).
I had one more final question to ask; if you could choose one person in the world to enjoy a private dinner with, who would it be? Now comes the very diplomatic, but sincere answer “My wife, of course”. With this last question we bid farewell of Ambassador Paul Robilliard and his media officer Khun Belle. Thank you for an interesting talk and our visit to your impressive new Embassy and residence.