Opinion: Soft power requires free thought, free expression

Much has been made over the last month in Thailand about Lisa Blackpink’s costumes and allusions to her country of birth in her debut single ‘Lalisa.’

Everyone from the prime minister to the internet cafe dwellers had something to say. Whether it was comments about the supposed social commentary found in the music video or talks about Lisa being a representative for all Thai people.

The Minister of Tourism even went so far as to say that he would make Lisa the new face for bringing in foreign tourists while the prime minister commented on the K-Pop artist as a example for aspiring Thai creatives.

“Gen Prayut admires success of Thai artists including individuals whose works reflect their dedication and determination to inspire many Thais in creative industries in arts, music and films,” said Government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana at the time.

“The application of Thai culture to create soft power will help to increase economic value and spread the culture internationally.”

What Khun Thankaorn and Prime Minister Prayut fail to recognize is that this soft power is not an expression of Thai-ism at all.

It is, rather, the concentrated and carefully cultivated efforts of subsequent South Korean governments going back decades. And what a haul they have to show for their efforts. Just think of the South Korean cultural exports that have now entered global popular culture

  • Blackpink
  • BTS
  • Kingdom
  • Squid Game
  • Got7
  • Parasite
  • The Handmaiden
  • Train to Busan

The number of talented musicians, directors, actors, and artists coming out of Korea has been the result of a concerted effort by their cultural office to promote, nurture, and grow the Korean cultural scene.

Which brings us back to Thailand. Eager are our politicians to capitalize and wax lyrical about the new for Thai soft power.

Everyone from Prayut Chan-ocha to Korn Chatikavanij talks about how great it would be if Thai artists can compete on the world’s stage.

But what escapes the grasp of some of our leaders is that in order for these works to flourish, creative freedom and freedom of expression are absolutely vital.

Take for example a show like Kingdom which is set in ancient Korea and involves zombies and the Korean royal family. A show like that could never be made in Thailand because we would not allow our artists creative license to do so. Remember that scholar Sulak Sivaraksa was accussed of lese majeste simply for recounting and criticizing King Naresuen, a monarch who is not even related to the current House of Chakri.

Soft power requires freedom of expression and a nurturing of those artists that dare to be different.

But our bests artists succeeds in spite of government policy and not because of it. Think of one of our greatest directors, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who has won twice at Cannes. His latest film, Memoria, is set in Colombia for many reasons but we don’t doubt for a second its also to avoid pesky government intrusions and politick-ing of art in Thailand.

One only has to look at the government Suchart Sawadsri who had his national artists badge taken away by the government because he dared to make political and cultural statements.

At the end of the day, Thai soft power will never succeed because the people in charge do not see it fit to allow the people to express themselves.

Prayut may claim he wants Thai soft power to dominate the world but he needs to take a long hard look in the mirror and perhaps stumble upon the realization that it is people like him that stops Thailand from ever flourishing creatively.


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