By Phatarawadee Phataranawik
The Nation Weekend
A month of Thailand’s first election in more than five years, political parties are rolling out promises for neo-populist programmes, economic revitalisation, political reform and environmental protection. Candidates representing the LGBT community and ethnic minorities are steering human rights to the forefront.
What some cultural scholars and social critics are still waiting for are policy proposals pertaining to art and culture. A seminar last weekend hosted by the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre and Artists Network did little to shed light on the matter.
Ten of the 81 parties contesting the March 24 election had representatives at what was billed as a political forum and some had “art and culture” policies to share. Three of the bigger parties – Phalang Pracharat, Pheu Thai and Thai Raksa Chart – did not participate.
The three-hour forum ended with no one offering a “macro policy” on cultural infrastructure or a strategy to foster a domestic creative industry able to compete on the global stage.
“The fact that only 10 parties are participating suggests that other candidates aren’t too concerned about cultural issues,” veteran artist Manit Sriwanichpoom declared at the forum. He denounced the campaigning to date as rife with propaganda and ideology.
“They lack vision on a national cultural policy,” Manit said.
Phungluang Party leader Kongpop Wangsunthon said it wanted to promote Thai cultural tourism globally, while Piyabutr Saengkanokkul of the Future Forward Party, a legal scholar, said his party wants to amend any law limiting freedom of expression and build more art and communal spaces across the Kingdom.
“We will promote local art globally by establishing an arts fund in every village,” Kongpop said. “Intellectuals in each village will share their knowledge and pass it on to the next generation and carry local wisdom on into cultural tourism.”
Piyabutr noted that many artists and activists had to endure censorship under the military junta for the past four years. “We will use culture as soft power to enhance rights,” he said. “Our party will amend any laws that limit the freedom of expression. We believe that art and culture can drive our society equally.”
With its youthful leadership, Future Forward is specifically targeting younger voters, using pop culture and social media as campaign tools. Last year, it hosted the Future Festival in Bangkok, with film screenings, concerts and art exhibitions.
The party counts dozens of artists among its members, including famous transgender filmmaker Thanwarin Sukhaphisit, whose movie “Insects in the Backyard” was banned by the Culture Ministry.
“We will decentralise cultural management and support local museums,” Piyabutr said. “We also plan to open more community art spaces, provide financial support to artists and establish artist councils.”
The Commoner and Thai Local Power parties are focusing on cultural localisation.
“Freedom of expression and equality are the keys to culture management,” said Laksanaree Duangtadam of the Commoner Party, himself an artist. “We will promote cultural diversity and provide financial support to artists and we plan to build local museums throughout the Kingdom.”
Thai Local Power’s Chuenchob Kongudom agrees that’s a sound approach, along with the promotion of local wisdom in every province as another means to forge a creative economy.
“We should export our arts to the world,” he said. “Thai wine should be as popular as Bordeaux. Our party also plans to promote clusters of local art villages for cultural tourism.”
Vitidnan Rojanapanich of Chart Pattana Party, another artist, said it wanted to use digital platforms to get the world interested in Thai art and culture.
“Thais like Louis Vuitton more than Thai art, and this is a problem in our society,” he said. “We will merge startups and artists to invent new products. We’ll revolutionise the Culture Ministry for the progressive promotion of Thai art and culture, like the way South Korea promotes its culture around the world. We hope to make Thailand the creative economy hub of Asia.”
Sukthawee Suwannachairop of the Moderate Party said the cultural landscape could be transformed through changes in the law, upgrades in art education and support for the art market.
“We should decentralise and deregulate cultural management by using new technology to upgrade our art and culture,” he said.
“For example, using YouTube as a new learning method. I like the idea of TK Park, which decentralises learning to local communities with its branches upcountry.”
Palinee Ngaarmpring, one of the Mahachon Party’s three candidates for the next prime minister and the only transgender challenger contesting the election, said she was interested in cultural diversity and freedom of expression. “Culture can be a weapon for developing the country,” she said. “We will use market mechanisms to boost contemporary and local art. We will promote local products such as wine and herbal medicine globally.”
Representatives of the Action Coalition for Thailand, Chart Thai Pattana and Democracy parties proffered ideas for conserving Thai culture so future generations can continue enjoying it.
No policies on cultural diversity
Thammasat University anthropologist Yukti Mukdawijitra and art lecturer Thanom Chapakdee of Srinakharinwirot Prasarnmitr University agreed that most of the policies shared involved smaller-scale rather than national undertakings.
“There were no policies about using our cultural diversity to empower society,” Thanom told The Nation Weekend. “Those based on ideology would be difficult to implement. Some plan to build a lot of local museums but don’t talk about sustainable management, professional staffing and long-term funding.”
The mid-1990s Democrat government under Chuan Leekpai built four museums in four regions – Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Songkhla and Chon Buri, he noted. “But because of a lack of funding and professional management, these museums are basically dead today.”
Yukti found repetition in many of the policy proposals, such as promoting Thai art globally and cultural tourism.
“What’s lacking is a national policy that will lay the foundation for cultural advancement, like the Thaksin Shinawatra government did in the early 2000s by setting out policy for a creative industry.”
Thaksin, founder of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai party that has several affiliated parties contesting this election, in 2004 established the Office of Knowledge Management and Development. It was a public organisation with a Bt790-million budget for building a creative economy out of art, design, fashion, food, film and other forms of intellectual property.
Within that structure he established the Thailand Creative and Design Centre and Thailand Knowledge Park (TK Park).
Efforts in this direction continued under the Abhisit Vejjajiva (Democrat, 2008-2011) and Yingluck Shinawatra (Pheu Thai, 2011-2014) administrations. Prayut Chan-o-cha did not overtly pursue the same goal after seizing power in 2014.