Defusing heritage rows
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Defusing heritage rows

As the Songkran water-splashing festival draws to a close in Thailand and Cambodia, the war of words among netizens -- sparked by a Thai influencer who made sarcastic comments about the Khmer New Year -- drags on.

The influencer, who arrived in Siem Riep on Saturday, compared the Songkran celebrations in both countries. A poor choice of words and an unsavoury attitude upset a large number of local netizens, resulting in the online spat between audiences from both countries.

The influencer eventually corrected the misinformation at the end of his clip, but it was too late. The damage was done.

The Songkran drama suggests the influencer -- and many Thai netizens -- know little about the traditions and culture of Cambodia, leading the Khmer audience to protest strongly.

As the debate went on, misguided nationalism effectively blinded both sides as they struggled to claim ownership of this traditional new year festival, which originated in India and is also celebrated by people in Myanmar and Laos.

Looking back, the Cambodian public's sense of disgruntlement surfaced last year when "Songkran in Thailand" won Unesco recognition as an intangible cultural heritage item in accordance with the namesake convention.

The Culture Ministry of Cambodia proceeded to register its version of the Khmer New Year, widely known as "Chol Chhnam Thmey" by local people, to the world cultural body. It's understood that it will also soon get the recognition it deserves.

Fierce competition by hardline elements concerning the traditional new year registration and other cultural products like Khol Lakhol of Cambodia and the Khon mask dance of Thailand -- both previously listed by Unesco -- is unfortunate given the two neighbours shared much cultural heritage before their national boundaries were settled.

Some may still remember the kun Khmer boxing vs muay Thai saga that almost spoiled last year's SEA Games.

It should be noted that this kind of competition for Unesco recognition is a widespread phenomenon. It's affected Indonesia and Malaysia -- another set of neighbours that share common cultural heritage in the form of pancak silat, a martial art, and other kinds of cultural products.

Given such cultural conflicts, perhaps it's time for Unesco to consider itself part of the solution, instead of distancing itself from the problem.

At least it should advise countries with similar heritage to consider joint registration under the programme, like Thailand's pha kaoma loincloth or the Khmer kroma.

The agency has already achieved this by encouraging five Asean countries including Thailand which jointly nominate bekaya, a piece of traditional clothing, which Unesco then approved. The other countries are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore

Unesco should suspend registration if governments refuse to cooperate, insisting on individual submission that would cause needless strife. After all, a shared culture should be cherished together.

Cambodia and Thailand should also promote constructive competition among their respective citizenries when it comes to promoting cultural knowledge.

Everyone should appreciate that shared cultural heritage has no borders.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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