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Speech by Ambassador Sonam Tobgay at the opening of the conference ‘Intersections of Culture, Climate and Science: Innovations from Bhutanese research in Australia’, at the University of Sydney on 4 December 2023

I would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to them and their Elders past, present and emerging.

Distinguished guests, esteemed scholars, and my fellow Bhutanese,

Let me begin by extending my heartfelt gratitude to the University of Sydney for taking the initiative to organize this historic Conference in collaboration with the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Canberra. Having been established just two years ago, the Embassy feels honored to be associated with this prestigious university, widely recognized for its academic excellence in Australia and globally.

My sincere appreciation goes to Professor Annamarie Jagose, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost, for your pivotal role and commitment to co-hosting this Conference with the Embassy. Without your dedication and vision, this event would not have materialized. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to Professor Ken-Tye Yong of the School of Biomedical Engineering and Associate Dean for External Engagement in the Faculty of Engineering, and Dr. Bunty Avieson, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media Discipline. Their unwavering enthusiasm, meticulous planning, and resourcefulness have been instrumental in bringing this Conference to fruition.

Dr. Bunty, as many would be aware, began her friendship with Bhutan two decades ago when her husband, Mal, was engaged in making the Bhutanese movie, ‘Travelers and Magicians’.

I am also honored to welcome Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies, as the keynote speaker for this Conference. Dasho is Bhutan’s leading scholar, who is also highly regarded internationally. His presence here is a great encouragement for us all and we eagerly look forward to his address tomorrow. 

Let me also thank all the Bhutanese scholars and other researchers undertaking scholarship about Bhutan for your interest to present your research and participate in the Conference. For the Bhutanese scholars, it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate your academic achievements.

Last year, during the visit to Australia by the former Foreign Minister, Dasho (Dr.) Tandi Dorji, to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations, his serendipitous visit to the University of Sydney, where he had studied two decades earlier, sparked the interest that led to this Conference. Interestingly, the Foreign Minister’s father was among the first group of Bhutanese students, who came to study at the University of Sydney in 1970.

Such opportunities for Bhutanese to start coming to study in Australia were made possible in 1962, after an all-female Bhutanese delegation, who were the first Bhutanese to set foot on Australian shores attended the Colombo Plan Meeting in Melbourne. Led by Ashi Tashi Dorji, sister of the then Queen of Bhutan, this delegation played a pivotal role, with Australia’s help, in securing Bhutan’s membership to the Colombo Plan, which was the first international organization Bhutan joined.

Since then, thousands of fortunate Bhutanese, including all the Bhutanese scholars gathered here today, along with my colleague, Metho and myself, have had the privilege of receiving a world-class education in Australia. The impact of this educational exchange is evident, as 7 out of the 11 cabinet members in the previous Bhutanese government, including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, held degrees from Australian universities. Education has undoubtedly been the main pillar of our bilateral relations.

Australia remains a preferred educational destination for Bhutanese students and with an estimated 30,000 Bhutanese, primarily students, residing in Australia, forming the largest Bhutanese diaspora.

Today is indeed also a good occasion to pay special tribute to Ashi Tashi Dorji for her commendable efforts six decades ago, which laid the foundation for the excellent relations between Australia and Bhutan. She was also instrumental in sending the first Bhutanese students to the University of Sydney. In recognition of her distinguished service, Ashi Tashi was conferred with the title of ‘Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia’ by the Governor-General in 2018. Earlier this year, we were delighted when she celebrated her 100th birth anniversary. We extend our heartfelt wishes for her continued good health and happiness.

It is against this backdrop that I am truly grateful to the University of Sydney for reconnecting and engaging with Bhutan in many substantive areas in the past several years. This is all the more special as it was here that some of the first Bhutanese students, who came to Australia, embarked on their educational journey.

With Australian universities also hosting the highest number of Bhutanese scholars pursuing PhDs and conducting groundbreaking research, the Embassy wondered how we could harness their knowledge, skills, and expertise to contribute back to Bhutan. Hence, when Dr. Bunty and Prof. Ken-Tye proposed this conference, we jumped at the opportunity. I cannot thank you both enough for bringing together so many Bhutanese scholars from diverse fields, and also offering them this platform. Such a gathering is the first of its kind and we must strive to sustain such academic engagements in the future.

The Conference’s theme, ‘Intersections of culture, climate, and science,’ resonates with the challenges and opportunities faced by many countries, including Australia and Bhutan. Its timing coincides with Bhutan’s ongoing rapid transformation, where in the midst of preserving our unique cultural heritage and conserving our environment, we are making efforts to embrace technological advancements. 

This conference will serve as a valuable platform for sharing knowledge, exchanging ideas, and collaborating on innovative solutions that can also contribute to the transformation underway in Bhutan. Australia, with its world-class institutions and cutting-edge research, can be a valuable partner in this endeavor. The academic exchange facilitated by this conference will undoubtedly strengthen ties among our scholars, foster collaborative research projects and knowledge-sharing initiatives to address common challenges. It will also be a good avenue to strengthen our bilateral ties.

I am confident this Conference will also generate good ideas so that together, the Bhutanese scholars and the Embassy, can organize ourselves better to find avenues for Bhutan to benefit from your expertise and rich experiences regardless of where you are in Australia. 

I eagerly look forward to your presentations and discussions over the next two days. Let me conclude by reiterating my deep gratitude to the University of Sydney for organizing this Conference and I wish it great success.

Thank you and Tashi Delek!

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