Treasures within Asean’s diversity

Cultural splendour: A Bunditpatanasilpa Institute’s College of Dramatic Arts student showing off his traditional Thai dancing mask and costume.

Cultural splendour: A Bunditpatanasilpa Institute’s College of Dramatic Arts student showing off his traditional Thai dancing mask and costume.

BANGKOK: Among the challenges facing Thailand this year as chair of Asean is finding ways to tap into the region’s cultural diversity and develop a unified creative industry.

Failure to do so, scholars warn, would damage the bloc’s credibility and hamper its pursuit of Asean 4.0.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha this month launched Asean Cultural Year 2019, announcing a 12-month series of cultural events involving all 10 members of Asean.

The promotional scheme is part of Thailand’s soft power push to boost economic and political solidarity in a region seeking trade leverage with the rest of the world.

“Asean will strengthen our cooperation under the ‘3Mstrategy: mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit’ to achieve our goal of ‘Advancing Partnership for Sustainability’,” Prayut said.

“We will step forward together as we follow the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Develop­ment Goals.

“We will turn our cultural diversity into a creative industry and turn our region into Asean 4.0.”

Representatives of the member states and foreign diplomats attended the launch in Bangkok.

Thailand, led by the Culture Ministry, will coordinate efforts to promote regional culture, including Asean roadshows touring Europe and China.

People there will get to see the new Thai animation Rama Avatar and other films from South-East Asia, sample Asean street food, enjoy a puppet festival and view the exhibition “Asean Heritage – The World Heritage”.

Also heading overseas in an ambassadorship role is a band called C Asean Consonant, whose 10 musicians from across the region play the traditional instruments of their homelands.

Khon, recently added to Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, will be at the forefront of events, including at an international symposium taking place at Thammasat Univer­sity at the end of April.

Interest in Thailand’s version of the mask dance will be shared with Cambodia’s similar art form known as khol.

“The government needs to reset the mindset that we are all global citizens,” says Asean scholar Piti Srisangnam.

“We have to respect differences and cultural diversity. As an Asean member, we should learn about our neighbouring cultures.”

Piti, director of academic affairs at Chulalongkorn University’s Asean Studies Centre, cited the Ramayana as an example.

The epic Indian tale steeped in Hindu mythology has always held enormous significance across South-East Asia, he noted, but different Asean members adapted it to their own unique versions.

“We must respect every country’s heritage and interpretation”.

Piti, also an economics teacher at Chulalongkorn, warned that nationalism and patriotism should never be factors in assessing the merits of foreign cultures.

Though Asean’s rich and diverse culture provides good capital for building for the future, developing an Asean creative industry will not be easy, he said.

“It will require innovation and clever marketing to expand trade.

“We have to think outside the box and introduce cultural innovation, which rarely happens in Thailand.”

Although the March 24 election will not significantly disrupt the Asean cultural calendar, Piti said, post-election changes in the Cabinet could slow promotional efforts.

The same applies in other countries holding elections in the first half of 2019, he said, including India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Thailand has yet to achieve Thailand 4.0 because the bureaucracy is divided on how to interpret the concept, former Culture Ministry permanent secretary Apinan Poshayanand said.

Implementing the creative industry strategy and Asean 4.0 is complex because there are so many stakeholders.

Apinan left the ministry to work for ThaiBev, under whose auspices he succeeded in merging the idea of a creative economy with the culture and tourism sectors by inaugurating the Bangkok Biennale, the country’s first international festival of contemporary art.

The 150 million baht (RM19.56mil) festival generated several million baht in income and gave Bangkok the spotlight as a regional art hub.

To promote regional cultural unity, Thailand needs to do more than host cultural parades, he said.

It also has to provide a platform for addressing socio-political issues like minority rights as well as social inequality.

That’s how to understand the real cultural diversity of the region.

Dulyapak Preecharush, a Thammasat University scholar, suggested that Asean expand the cultural corridors along the borders of neighbouring countries and formulate policies aimed towards “sharing the benefits”.

“Pooled efforts in marketing with an eye to mutually sustainable development could possibly arise between Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen in Myanmar and between Chaiya in Surat Thani and Kedah in Malaysia,” he said.

“Thanks to the similarities in culture, and through better understanding, we might even hope to reduce political conflicts.”

“Meanwhile, we should tap the economic power of our cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai and dual nationality places like Nakhon Phanom, all international melting pots,” Dulyapak said.

The same could be applied to other urban centres across Asean that display similar diversity.” — The Nation/Asia News Network