No need for blows in martial arts row

No need for blows in martial arts row

Kun Lbokator is a martial art dating back to the first century. It aims to develop the mental and physical strength and discipline of its practitioners. ©2021 Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and National Olympic Committee of Cambodia
Kun Lbokator is a martial art dating back to the first century. It aims to develop the mental and physical strength and discipline of its practitioners. ©2021 Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and National Olympic Committee of Cambodia

Khmer traditional martial arts, or "Kun Lbokator", was among this year's 22 new inscriptions to Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), as announced at the 17th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, which was convened from Nov 28 to Dec 3 2022, in Rabat, Morocco.

Other 2022 inscriptions to the List include artisanal know-how and the culture of baguette bread from France; traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices in China; Furyu-odori ritual dances from Japan; and practices of Holy Week in Guatemala.

While this news has been received by the global public with enthusiasm, new inscriptions do not always escape regional controversy. Indeed, cultural practices from closely neighbouring countries can share fascinating, cross-border histories, leading some impassioned observers on one side of the fence to question the historical and contemporary status of another country's intangible cultural practices.

To judge by much recent Thai social media commentary, such was the case with Cambodia's successful Unesco inscription this year of Khmer martial arts, or "Kun Lbokator".

Rather than evoking a sense of regional pride and transnational appreciation, the fact that a cultural practice from a neighbouring country had been included this year in the list provoked a maelstrom on Thai social media. Netizens said Kun Lbokator imitated Thailand's wai kru ritual, and yang sam khum footwork, as practised in Muay Thai, as heroically portrayed in the 2003 Thai hit film, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior.

Some Thai netizens remarked that the Unesco inscription distorted the truth regarding the antecedence or supposed superiority of one martial art practice over another. Others complained that the inscription represented a deliberate assault by one country on its neighbour, using the international stage as leverage to wage psychological warfare.

That any aspect of cultural heritage should evoke such passions warrants a measure of appreciation, and in that regard, Unesco heartily welcomes all public responses. But let us consider the context and the purpose of being included on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity before arriving at such acrimonious conclusions.

Every year, around November to December, Unesco headquarters in Paris convenes a session of its Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) to perform its duties according to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The IGC comprises delegates from 24 out of the 175 state parties that ratified this convention. Members to the committee are elected every four years on a rotational basis, such that each state party can carry out its work according to legal obligations to the 2003 convention and discuss programmes for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, as well as review various international cooperation initiatives.

As a state party to the convention, Thailand adopted its own Promotion and Conservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage Act in 2016.

The item on the IGC meeting agenda that typically receives the most attention is the committee's examination of nominations from different countries for inscription to one of three potential Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding; and the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.

The public is often most captivated by the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, commonly mistaken for the Unesco World Heritage List.

The majority of nominations from various countries are directed for possible inclusion on the Representative List, as Unesco's aim is to foster appreciation for the lasting importance of each intangible cultural heritage to the local community that inherits it, rather than that community's benefiting by increased tourism or by boosting the national image for political purposes.

Notably, among the diverse opinions expressed online regarding this particular inscription, there were attempts by many Thai commentators to explain to those who were upset by the achievement that the purpose of the inscription to Unesco's list was to enable a nation to share its success story in promoting its cultural heritage, and to foster greater appreciation and interest among other nations in order to ensure the survival of the treasured cultural heritage through increased global recognition.

What some people may overlook is the fact that, in the historical timeline, many kinds of cultural heritage came into existence and flourished well before the rise of nation-states in this region, the latter which occurred in relatively recent times. In this regard, the official description of "Kun Lbokator" on the Unesco website characterises it as a martial art that shares similarities with Muay Thai and Muay Laos, which is neither unusual nor inaccurate.

Such art forms have, after all, been bequeathed to us from ancient kingdoms that intermingled different ethnicities and nurtured cultural exchanges throughout the region for centuries, leading to the many "syncretic" beliefs and practices we observe in contemporary South-East Asia. Is it not possible for us to collectively take pride in how diverse peoples in the land of Suvarnabhumi share close cultural ties that modern-day geo-political borders cannot sever?

It is equally notable that the name of this inscription to Unesco's list is "Kun Lbokator, traditional martial arts in Cambodia." Cambodia opted to use the word "in" rather than "of" in order to convey that this type of traditional martial arts may be practised by people of any nation, and therefore it may appear within the borders of any nation.

The inscription does not deprive people belonging to other nations or communities of the right to identify with, learn, share, or transmit this heritage. Moreover, being added to Unesco's Representative List is not equivalent to applying for intellectual property rights (IPR) or "geographical indication" (GI).

If it might make those who are still in a combative mood feel any better, the Department of Cultural Promotion, under the Ministry of Culture, intends to nominate Muay Thai for inscription to Unesco's list in coming years.

The crucial step in the nomination process is to demonstrate that the country has a clear plan in place to promote and propagate any nominated inscription extensively, such that everyone will be able to participate in the practice without its being appropriated by or exploited for the benefit of any particular group.

Thailand has already made it to the same Unesco list multiple times, most recently with Nora just last year, as well as Nuad Thai (2019) and Khon (2018). As for the future, Thailand's Songkran Festival is slated for Unesco's review as soon as 2023, along with mango sticky rice, which Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha urged for inclusion on the list after 20 year-old Thai rapper "Milli" (Danupha Khanatheerakul) created a sensation by eating mango sticky rice during her performance at Coachella 2022 in California. May we all take comfort in that there is little reason for Thais to feel slighted by another people's achievement!

Nisit Intamano is Director of the School of Law of Sripatum University, Bangkok. Montakarn Suvanatap Kittipaisalsilp is a programme officer for culture at Unesco Bangkok.

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