FEATURE: There’s treasure in Asean diversity

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - With Thailand in the lead role this year, the regional bloc seeks to profit from showing the world a unified tapestry of multiple cultures.

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 the goals 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 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

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 ‘3M’ strategy – mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual benefit – to achieve this year’s goal of ‘Advancing Partnership for Sustainability’,” Prayut said.

“We will step forward together, leaving no one behind, as we follow the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We will turn our cultural diversity into 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 Southeast 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 throughout the year, 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.”Interviewed by The Nation Weekend, 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 Southeast Asia, he noted, “but different Asean members adapted their own unique versions. No single version is ‘right’ compared to the others, so we have to 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, saying culture was “a sensitive issue”. “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. 

“So how can we push the whole region towards Asean 4.0? 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 Bt150-million festival generated several million baht in income and gave Bangkok the spotlight as a regional art hub. “To properly promote regional cultural unity, Thailand needs to do more than host cultural parades,” he said. “It has to provide a platform for addressing socio-political issues like minority rights and 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 a ‘sharing the benefits’ policy”.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, which are all international melting pots,” Dulyapak said. “The same could be applied to other urban centres across Asean that display similar diversity.”

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