Nix naga, add values

Nix naga, add values

If the Department of Cultural Promotion has its way, Thailand will have the naga, a mythical snake, as a national symbol.

The department, which operates under the Ministry of Culture, proposed the idea to the cabinet last week, saying the mythical creature has long influenced Thai society and traditions.

It has also tried to link the idea of promoting the naga with the recently much referred to idea of "soft power" through films and drama.

The National Identity Office has reportedly assigned the Department of 10 Crafts of Traditional Thai Arts and Craftsmanship to draw an official naga symbol so a proposal can be made to the cabinet before it becomes official.

The naga, despite its mythical nature, is a significant part of Thai culture. Originating in India, it is widely associated with traditional architecture, forming decorative parts of temple buildings, serving as strong visual motifs on staircase handrails, and appearing in artworks -- not only in Thailand but also neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Laos. It remains highly revered.

In Cambodia, naga or nang neak (Daughter of King Naga) -- as it's called by Cambodians -- is mentioned in an old tale about the birth of the ancient Khmer kingdom, where decorative pieces of art in the form of the naga have existed for centuries, evolving in form but remaining unchanged in meaning and significance.

Given the fact that people in the region have such high regard for this sacred creature, the Thai authorities should bear in mind that co-opting it as a national symbol could appear somewhat insensitive.

Thailand already has four national symbols: the Garuda, an eagle-like deity, whose image appears on every Thai passport; the ratchapruek flower; a traditional pavilion; and the elephant, also found in Thai passports. Three were endorsed by the cabinet under the former Thaksin Shinawatra government in 2001, and the Garuda since 1911. This begs the question: why do we need another national symbol? How about making good use of the existing one, instead of adding another that could sow misunderstanding and confusion.

Of course, safeguarding old culture and traditions is important. But the agency should not forget its other vital tasks, particularly those concerning the promotion of decent values. By dwelling too much on conserving ancient culture, the department could find itself engaged in redundant tasks with other state agencies.

In fact, the department needs to review its role and performance, and how it has failed to give a specific definition of decent values, even shying away from the issue completely.

Upholding strong values is just as important as preserving cultural traditions. These could include democracy, constructive patriotism, equality, integrity, and openness to diversity. How about campaigning to promote simple-yet-crucial values like disciplining youngsters without messing with their hairstyles or uniform?

It would be a great service to society if the department took stock of what it has missed over the years, and got its priorities straight. At least it should strike a balance, broadening its narrow definition of "culture" while facing fresh challenges to ensure that Thais respect new values while still worshipping the old ones.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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