Thailand’s new government pushes culture as soft power, but not everyone’s buying

On Nov 1, the soft power committee suggested extending the annual Songkran celebrations from three days to to a whole month. - PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK: From muay thai to mango sticky rice, Thailand’s cultural elements are being pitched by its leaders as soft power tools, but critics say this may not translate into having international influence.

“Soft power” became a buzzword in the political arena in late 2021 when Thai K-pop sensation Lisa Manobal, a member of Blackpink, released a smash-hit solo album.

Since then, politicians and policymakers have bandied the term around to laud any Thai person, product or event that has made headlines both locally and overseas.

The new Pheu Thai-led government has also moved quickly to promote its soft power policy, and the newly established National Soft Power Strategy Committee has proposed 5.1 billion baht (S$193 million) be set aside to fund initiatives in the entertainment, tourism, arts and publishing sectors.

It hopes that this drive will generate an estimated 4 trillion baht, create 20 million jobs in the country of about 70 million and raise household incomes.

On Nov 1, the soft power committee, led by deputy chairwoman Paetongtarn Shinawatra, suggested extending the annual Songkran celebrations and cultural events, usually held for three days in April, to a whole month to attract more tourists.

“We will not splash water only for three days, but for the whole month with events held nationwide,” said Ms Paetongtarn, who also leads the Pheu Thai Party. The extended festival is expected to bring in 35 billion baht.

While well-meaning, the government’s heavy focus on soft power initiatives that boost tourism, trade and investment is too narrow, said Assistant Professor Peera Charoenvattananukul from Thammasat University’s political science faculty.

“Promoting Songkran is a good attraction for tourists, but at the end of the day, it’s mainly for financial benefit. What does it do for Thailand’s international standing?”

It will take a lot more than just promoting its local and cultural assets to the world to gain influence and credibility in the geopolitical sphere, added Prof Peera, who specialises in foreign policy.

He cautioned against overemphasis on soft power or hard selling the concept: “It’s like those cold calls you get. I’ve never once bought anything from those callers.”

At its core, soft power is a country’s ability to influence the behaviour of others for its economic and geopolitical goals. It relies on attraction and persuasion rather than hard power or coercion, and is commonly carried out through cultural, political and ideological means.

The term has been used too indiscriminately among Thai leaders, said Assistant Professor Ake Pattaratanakun, head of marketing at the Chulalongkorn Business School.

Historic temples, tom yum kung and Thai traditional dance are all well-known Thai assets, but the mere exporting and sale of Thai culture and products does not equal soft power, said Prof Ake, who sits on several government boards related to soft power promotion.

“It must influence others outside of Thailand, and not every asset can be that vehicle of influence,” he said.

Thailand is already renowned for its cuisine, festivals and beaches, and its capital Bangkok is one of the most-visited cities worldwide.

Despite the boost from tourism revenue, government leaders have said that its economy is in a “crisis”. Third-quarter growth was a lower-than-expected rate of 1.5 per cent year on year, blamed on weak exports and government spending.

Thailand is hoping to bank on soft power to achieve its current goals of reviving the economy, said Prof Ake.

Instead of solely targeting economic benefits, Prof Peera suggested that soft power initiatives elevate Thailand’s ideology: “What’s the message that Thailand wants to tell the world? What values do we want to convey to other countries?”

The country could, for example, get more involved in international aid or provide more scholarship opportunities for students in the region, he added.

Thailand could also actively promote Bangkok’s Pride month activities in June, which would signal Thailand’s openness and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) communities, said Prof Peera.

“In the region, Thailand is the closest to unlocking the law for LGBTQ+ rights. Doing so will make us matter, and will strengthen our soft power.”

Thailand has one of the most visible LGBTQ+ communities in Asia, and a draft law on marriage equality is scheduled for parliamentary debate in December.

If approved, Thailand will be the first country in South-east Asia to legalise same-sex marriage.

“If you want to achieve something in global politics, you have to build these pro-Thai sentiments... (for) a better profile in the international arena,” Prof Peera said, adding that the soft power of countries like the United States and South Korea has taken years to build.

“It will take time to build up soft power. But we have just been through democratic elections, and are no longer under a junta government. So that’s one step towards improving our influence.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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