Time for Thailand to develop smart power

opinion September 29, 2014 01:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

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At the Blitz Megaplex Grand Indonesia in Jakarta early this month, local fans thronged the "standing room only" waiting area for their Thai heartthrobs - Juthawut Pathakamphol, Thanaphop Leerattakajorn and Supasssara Thanachai - from the blockbuster horro

They like Thai horror films because the Thai ghosts are very beautiful and feisty; they can be also very human at the same time.
“The Swimmer” is scheduled to be shown in theatres in all Asean member nations in weeks ahead, making it one of the most popular films ever as the region moves toward the Asean Community. The director, Sophon Sakdapisit, told the author that in future he would like to make a movie with a theme that touches on the Asean community and spirit.
Apart from films, Thai television series also have a strong showing on foreign tubes. Young adolescent-theme series such as “Hormone” and “ATM-2” are popular among Indonesian teens. 
Discounting neighbours with common borders, Thai ‘soft power’ is highly visible in Indonesia through every-day encounters such as consumer products, entertainment, fashions, food and fruits, to name but a few. 
In recent years, Thai films, especially in horror and avant-garde categories, have been praised for originality and storylines. 
Apichartpong Weerasetapong’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life” won the much coveted prize of the Palme d’Or in 2010. Other Thai films and directors have also received numerous international awards from the region’s film industry. 
Somehow, Thai authorities who are promoting the country’s smart power have no idea of utilising this popular and neutral medium. Instead, the government agencies have put up extra funds for period films accentuating nationalistic feeling, building on myths. Indeed, Thailand could have followed South Korea’s example in early 2000, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars to promote Korean culture overseas that subsequently led to a proliferation of the “Korean Wave” around the world. The country’s smart power is no longer confined to the so-called “kimchi” making campaign.
To be fair, for the past decade, tremendous efforts have been made to promote other Thai cultural assets globally such as Thai cuisine, boxing, takraw, amulets, herbal medicine and classical dance. Except for Thai food, there were no continued and systematic promotions of other cultural aspects. The absence of long-term strategies on branding and marketing Thailand’s culture is the biggest stumbling block. 
In Europe, the energy-driven sport known as Thai boxing is gaining popularity thanks to Czech entrepreneurs who have popularised the sport among young Europeans. Red Bull, known locally as krating daeng, is a big global brand because of its effective long-term marketing and communication strategies. 
In the case of Thai cuisine, billions of baht were spent on this campaign which started in earnest in 1998 after the country was hit by the tom-yum crisis. At the time, literally anything that would boost the economy further was not spared. Now Thai cuisine has been ranked among the top five of the world’s best loved food. 
Processed food of famous Thai dishes have earned the country huge amounts of foreign exchange. For example, bottled Thai chicken chilli sauce is a multi-billion baht export.
Besides the food, the government of former prime minister Chuan Leekpai also promoted human rights and democracy as a foreign policy tool – a far cry from today’s situation. 
Although the economy was down after the economic crisis, the country’s standing on freedom of expression and political openness was still ahead of the region.
Interestingly, at the time, the Foreign Ministry came up with a project to establish Thai cultural centres in neighbouring countries. The first pilot centre was built in Ho Chi Minh City, because of Vietnam’s vibrant economy and close proximity to Thailand. Relations with Vietnam followed the economic crisis and its admission into Asean in 1995 provided the backdrop to further engagement with this neighbour. Somehow, the project was subsequently aborted due to the lack of interest in intra-government agencies. 
As a non-colonised nation, Thailand’s domestic and international politics are closely interlinked more than Thai leaders would like to admit. 
We are extremely sensitive to foreign reaction and pressure in one form or another. 
Thailand wants to be loved and often views itself as a country without an enemy. 
At this juncture, Thailand is in a deep pit. We need to convince the world that this nation will recover from the current political transition and shine again. 
We need to develop “smart power” – a combination of soft power and public diplomacy – using our cultural assets and good practices that will promote better understanding and friendship with the outside world.