Established in May 1977, the Australian - Thai Chamber of Commerce was the first Australian Chamber in the ASEAN region, and the second overseas Australian Chamber to be formed. The Chamber opened its doors on a scene of global uncertainty, something that seems to have remained with us ever since. While the Chamber has maintained its original goals, many other things have changed.
The Chamber was conceived by a group of Australians who met under the heading of "The Australian Businessmen's Group". Avenues of communication were rapidly established between the Chamber and the relevant Government Ministries and Boards, with the Australian Embassy and Austrade, and more broadly across the community. The first Chamber president was Adrian Gundlach. Within a year Mr. Gundlach would remark that: "The Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce is indeed fortunate in that our membership consists of a "good mix" of local and international banks, legal firms, shipping companies, airlines and a strong group of manufacturers - all of whom are committed to the development of increased two-way trade between Thailand and Australia, and new investment opportunities".
In 1977 the Australian Government stated that the greatest tests of Australian foreign policy lay in dealing with global problems. At the time, these problems included a recession in world trade, the growing danger of nuclear proliferation, and rising tensions in the Middle East. Inflation had accompanied recession in many economies, emerging as a major economic concern.
In Thailand the population was 44 million, and Khun Tanin Kraivixien was Prime Minister. Thailand enjoyed a growth rate twice the world average. The largest Australian export to Thailand in 1976 was zinc (18.4% of dollar values), and the largest Thai import to Australia was textile fabrics and handcrafted goods (19.7%). Thai tourism was still a small industry on the move: while Bangkok had 56 hotels, Phuket had only six. In Australia, the Prime Minister was Malcolm Fraser; Andrew Peacock was Minister for Foreign Affairs, and John Howard the Minister of Business and Consumer Affairs. G.A. Jockel was the Australian Ambassador to Thailand.
Over the years the Chamber contributed to many broader aspects of Australian-Thai relations. One of the most notable achievements was the Chamber's role in the restoration of Hellfire Pass. Previously the location, although well known, had been left untouched for many years. Following efforts by AustCham and its members, the site was cleared and some of the tracks restored. This led to the building of a museum, just above the site, that provides clear and graphic details of the hardships suffered by those involved in building the railroad. In 2005 a monument was constructed at the end of the cutting, standing testament to the POWs and local people who perished during the building of the railroad.
The support by local people and schools helped inspire a program of English teaching at schools near the Pass as well as elsewhere in Thailand. AustCham was closely involved in helping the schools obtain water filtration systems through donations by various companies, as well as ensuring that the systems were suitably housed and maintained. Assistance was also provided for renovating schools and community libraries, and AustCham members have over the years, continued to make many generous donations of items such as bicycles and computers.
Since 1977 the Thai economy has moved from being primarily agrarian to include a large industrial component, in both low tech and high tech manufacturing, and petrochemicals. Australia, too, has undergone significant structural changes, many of which have made it more attractive for trade and investment. The Chamber itself has developed a sound financial base and has come to represent access to a vast body of knowledge and experience, as well as developing considerable standing in both countries and in the region more broadly.
Relations took another leap forward in 2004 with Thailand and Australia concluding a Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). Implementation of the agreement, Thailand's first with a developed country, started from the 1st January 2005 and succeeded in generating considerable interest in bilateral trade opportunities between our two countries. In the run up to and following signing of the agreement, we saw visits from a number of Federal and State Ministers, including two Premiers.
While looking back on the Chamber's history allows us some perspective on its achievements, the focus is, as always, on the future. We are always working to improve the services we offer to those involved in Australian-Thai business activities. We aim to ensure our place at the forefront of the Australian business community in Thailand, and to work closely with the Embassy and Austrade in order to bring greater depth to trade activities between our two nations. With these goals in mind, we envisage greater achievements to come, and look forward enthusiastically to the future of business in Thailand.