'Soft power' goal proves a tough nut to crack
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'Soft power' goal proves a tough nut to crack

Danupha ‘Milli’ Khanatheerakul eats mango and sticky rice on the stage of the world-famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2022. (Photo: Coachella 2022)
Danupha ‘Milli’ Khanatheerakul eats mango and sticky rice on the stage of the world-famous Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2022. (Photo: Coachella 2022)

The government's plan to harness "soft power" to propel Thailand into becoming a leading country of the world may sound impressive.

But recent news about navy recruits being forced to drink semen and the president of a prestigious arts university insisting that posting photos of a flight attendant for his subordinates "to drool over" was harmless are definitely not.

"Soft power" has become a buzzword in Thailand after teen rapper Danupha "Milli" Khanatheerakul's debut at Coachella, with her mango sticky rice stunt grabbing the public's attention.

And sure enough, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made sure he was in on the trend -- after previously suing the rapper over her criticism of his administration's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite having ruled Thailand with his hardline policies and zero-tolerance of criticism for years, Gen Prayut claimed it was he who had been pushing all along for the nation to harness its "soft power" -- which he erroneously called "software" during a press conference -- to drive the country's growth engines.

Last week, he revisited the theme in a social media post -- for which the comment function was disabled -- by declaring Thailand will grow by leaps and bounds after the double crises of Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war.

The five key areas that the Prime Minister listed as having the potential to lift the country up to the international stardom are its social safety net, as seen in recent government relief packages, strength in the healthcare sector, still expanding export sector, high appeal to foreign investors and of course, the much-talked-about soft power -- saying he will place "soft power" on the agenda of all cabinet meetings in the future.

He cited the "success" of the Thailand Pavilion at the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, which according to the post, was visited by over 2.35 million people and ranked among the top five most visited exhibits.

However, was that really a showcase of the country's soft power?

The term "soft power" implies a concerted effort to promote a country's culture to make it admired by others on the international stage. A country is said to have "soft power" if it can harness its cultural influence to drive its growth and boost its image abroad.

For example, Japan has its anime, and South Korea has its K-Pop industry. Perhaps, Gen Prayut, as a self-professed fan of the hit K-dramas Descendants of the Sun and Start-Up, was so enamoured by Seoul's efforts to promote its image through such series that he completely forgot what it would take to bring Thailand up to that standard.

Without a doubt, the government's attention and investment would be useful in projecting the country's soft power abroad. That said, the most fundamental requirement for such efforts to succeed is the availability of space for creative thought. For a culture to progress, there has to be freedom of thought, tolerance, and willingness to accept differing norms and values.

The incident at the navy, where a instructor was dismissed for forcing a new unit of recruits to drink semen, showed just how far Thailand is from being able to exert its cultural influence abroad.

The fact that such culture of abuse is alive and well at an official training base where a lot of people were involved says a lot about authoritarianism in the country.

The fact of the matter is, this is exactly the opposite condition that is needed for soft power creation.

The navy said it does not tolerate the use of violence or any action which violates human rights in training recruits.

But the incident in question occurred last October. Apparently, the navy did not have a clue until a clip went viral after it was posted on social media.

Another case which bodes ill for the PM's soft power ambition concerns the attitude of Silpakorn University's president, who recently posted a photo of a flight attendant which he apparently took without her permission.

The highlight, however, was his caption, which included the comment: "Oh, when I travel by airplane, I always take photographs of air hostesses for my subordinates to drool over."

The uproar against his posts was predictable. What's disturbing, however, was his nonchalant attitude.

Chaicharn Tavaravej admitted that he took the photo, but he insisted he meant no harm.

But what about the "drool over" caption? What about respect for others' privacy?

If the president of the best-known arts college in Thailand believes this is acceptable behaviour and is allowed to continue serving in his current position, the government should just give up promoting Thailand's image abroad entirely, instead of embarrassing itself further.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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