Soft power struggles
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Soft power struggles

10 months into PM Srettha's term, one policy remains in tatters

Soft power struggles
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin at the opening of the Thailand Biennale in Chiang Rai.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's 10 months in office have proven to be full of optimism, entertainment and drama. His non-stop whirlwind trips to lure investors including Microsoft, Tesla, Formula One, Tomorrowland and Art Basel to Thailand earned him the image of the salesman on a Time magazine cover. With the government's 10-month report card out and future plans in discussion, there has been both applause and confusion.

With the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former fugitive prime minister who made a miraculous recovery after a few months in police hospital instead of state prison, Thailand is bubbling with excitement as he has defied the law, and the Pheu Thai Party is now surging ahead to boost the morale of the people.

Thaksin is making headlines with every move and the sparkling optimism has overshadowed Srettha and ambitious campaigns such as the digital wallet scheme (coming soon) and land bridge (coming later). The Pheu Thai Party's plan to apply a quick fix to raise GDP and rescue the country's struggling economy via soft power is also in question as there have been claims it is a PR campaign to make Thaksin's daughter Paetongtarn, leader of Pheu Thai Party and chairwoman of the Thailand Creative Culture Agency (THACCA), the next prime minister. Until now, there has been big talk but little to show. What has gone wrong, or rather what has not gone right?

Forming THACCA and making soft power a part of its election campaign to lure votes from the youth and creative sectors was a risky gamble by Pheu Thai. Soft power does not belong to any political party. Claiming that soft power is a Pheu Thai initiative is simply pretentious and misleading. Due to wide-ranging definitions of soft power by bureaucracy, politicians and cultural sectors, the term has caused confusion. Some civil servant sectors simply change their work to suit the soft power scheme, and politicians are split in opinion as soft power is associated with the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Meanwhile, artists, craftsmen, performers, actors, writers, filmmakers, designers, musicians and gamers question the meaning as the term is defined with political motivation.

A public hearing on a proposed legislative draft by THACCA.

Soft power campaigns so far have been about populism. For example, One Family One Soft Power (Ofos) aims to create 20 million jobs with a minimum annual salary of 200,000 baht. There is also the promotion of gimmicky contests to attract tourists in record time such as eating popcorn and Chinese doughnuts, wearing elephant-pattern pantaloons and phi ta khon masks, and bursting balloons with boxing gloves. The Maha Songkran Water Festival, slated as part of the soft power initiative to attract tourists with weeks of wet and wild water splashing, was wasted with money down the drain.

However, Unesco did name Thai New Year as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for preserving the tradition of reunion and respect for ancestors and families after the rice harvest by pouring water as a symbol of cleansing, reverence and good fortune. By distorting traditional values for the sake of tourism, the charm and sincerity of Songkran has been sadly diluted.

Also, instead of Paetongtarn dressed as Miss Songkran Mahothon Devi riding a peacock or squirting water with people in scorching heat, the soft power lady opted to take a holiday in Hong Kong. Songkran was too hot for her to handle. To be fair, Paetongtarn cannot be blamed for the lack of positive results from soft power projects. After all, her role is controlled and manipulated by her father and his cronies. Her speeches are written for her to laud the Pheu Thai Party. It's not surprising that soft power, which promised jobs and prosperity, has been met with a lukewarm response from creative sectors and cultural workers.

In an attempt to recreate the success of the Korean Wave, THACCA's emulation of the Korea Creative Content Agency has failed to create hype. The Thailand Creative & Design Center and Creative Economy Agency are unable to connect with stakeholders in design, fashion, performance, visual arts, music, film, games and entertainment.

The resignation of the chair and members of the THACCA fashion subcommittee indicates a lack of confidence among the creative sector. Design Week Festival ran with a theme of revitalising the potential of Bangkok but it too was criticised as the content was weak and did not meet expectations. However, the visual arts sector has been most disappointing with little to show.

Although the Thailand Biennale in Chiang Rai has been more successful than previous editions in Krabi and Korat, credit belongs to the Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha government that initiated the project. Srettha and Paetongtarn who briefly attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chiang Rai could hardly claim that Thailand Biennale was part of the Pheu Thai soft power campaign. Yet, there was still behind-the-scenes drama involving a power struggle among civil servants, local politicians, artists and curators. Also, artists and curators who supported the Move Forward Party have different views to Pheu Thai Party's definition of soft power.

So far, there is a lack of strategy and plan to improve the art ecosystem in Thailand. By announcing that Thai artists will be represented on the international stage but without any assurance of budget or preparation, there is much to be done by THACCA to convince people.

Take for example the 60th Venice Biennale, the world grandest international art festival that recently opened with more than 90 national pavilions and hundreds of related exhibitions and cultural events. Running for eight months, Venice Biennale is a prime example of creative economy and soft power success blending heritage and the contemporary that attracts visitors.

It's a great shame that THACCA missed this golden opportunity to put the Thai Pavilion back on the art world map after a long absence due to scandals in the selection procedure and protests by artists. With the theme "Foreigners Everywhere", there is the presence of Singapore, Philippines, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Timor-Leste and Mongolia. However, the Thai Pavilion is nowhere to be seen. The THACCA and Ministry of Culture must take full responsibility for the absence at this world event.

As head of the THACCA, Paetongtarn should dedicate more time on her mission of improving infrastructure and human resources in various areas of art and culture. She and her team should revive art projects begun during the Thaksin government that failed to be fully implemented. The National Art Gallery at the Thailand Cultural Centre, planned by a Thaksin government to be Asean's cultural gateway, stands like an abandoned warehouse rotting in the heat. Millions of baht were spent on a national art collection and now artworks are stored away with improper temperature and humidity control. The THACCA declared last November that its priority was to upgrade the National Art Gallery into a leading destination in the region. Thus far, there is still no clear plan for this.

Another failed art project that needs urgent revival is the abandoned 2004 tsunami memorial at Nopparat Thara National Park in Krabi. In 2006, the Embassy of France, the Ministry of Culture and world-renowned artist Louise Bourgeois installed public sculptures in memory of victims of the 2004 tsunami. This art memorial attracted visitors and was the first and only public art project by the late Bourgeois in Southeast Asia. Due to a lack of care and budget, the memorial was left in ruins and Bourgeois' sculptures were locked for years in a safe at the Krabi governor's office. The goal of the Louise Bourgeois Foundation is to have the original sculptures and not reproductions on display at the National Park. THACCA's mission is to reinstall Bourgeois' public sculptures and garden and promote Krabi as a world-class art destination to bring income from cultural tourism.

THACCA has not hit the ground running. After 10 months, there is little to show in terms of positive output. "Platform On Soft Power: Thailand's Next Weapon", with Paetongtarn chatting with a soap opera promoter and restauranter and organised by the Thai Rath Forum, was a PR campaign that lacked substance, a mission or goals.

A public hearing on a proposed legislative draft by the THACCA to promote a creative culture, led by Suraphong Surpwongli and various speakers at BACC, last week debated the socioeconomic system. Artists and cultural workers complained that the THACCA draft is highly bureaucratic and geared too much towards the commoditisation of Thai art and culture. By overlooking the well-being of cultural workers, the draft excludes many sectors who make up the core of the Thai art ecosystem.

Overemphasis on Thai talent for sale to suit the political goals of the Pheu Thai Party distorts the potential of soft power, which can be far more impactful. Soft power as Pheu Thai Party's political agenda has a long and uphill struggle ahead.

Prof Apinan Poshyananda is the author of The Future: Post-Cold War, Postmodernism, Post-Marginalia (Playing With Slippery Lubricants) In Tradition And Change.

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