Opinion: Soft power requires support and, more importantly, an open mind

Thai rap sensation Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul made headlines around Asia on Sunday when she became the first Thai solo artist to perform at the Coachella music festival.
Thai rap sensation Danupha “Milli” Khanatheerakul made headlines around Asia on Sunday when she became the first Thai solo artist to perform at the Coachella music festival.

Check out part of her performance below!

Over 1.5 million Tweets celebrated Milli’s performance where she poked fun at foreign stereotypes about Thailand (I never rode an elephant!) and the country’s political situation (more on that later).

It was a landmark moment for Thailand’s music industry which has lagged behind regional competitors in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan for decades. Doubly so for Thailand’s youth who see Milli, who is 18 years old, as one of their own.

For a country that has been trying to promote its ‘soft power’ (a fancy name for cultural outreach and influence), Milli seemingly fits every criteria that Thailand needs to spread its message throughout the world.

She is young, vibrant, intelligent, and independent – everything that we should want the future generation of Thai women to be.

At a time when our male leaders are making headlines for all the wrong reasons – corruption, sexual assault, rabid infighting, take your pick, etc – it is perhaps the most appropriate that our young women lead the charge in spreading what is good and what is great about Thailand to the rest of the world.

Thick Skin

But it never is as easy as it should be.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is simply not going to change tracks overnight and suddenly invest money into the arts especially into Thai Rap, hip-hop, and oppositional subculture the way Japan or Korea might. I mean he could, but Thailand’s former dictator is a thin-skinned despot who famously possesses little foresight.

Just last year, Milli herself was fined by this government for daring to criticize its Covid policy. Milly, like most people in her age group, have been outspoken in their criticisms of the current government not just for its response during the pandemic but for its stranglehold on power.

Milli, who as previously mentioned is 18, was only 10 years old when the current prime minister took power from a democratically elected government in a military coup in 2014.

For the last eight years, Prayut and his military cronies have crushed dissent, have rigged the rules to stay in power, and have trampled on the right to free expression of Thailand’s youth-led pro-democracy movement.

This is the only prime minister that Milli and her generation have really known.

So when Milli took to the stage at Coachella on Sunday, she did not hold back in her lyrics.

But if Prayut and this government are serious about promoting Thai soft power to the world then they will have to grow much thicker skin than they have had in the past.

Because the creative industry is not going to be led by people the administration considers safe. Old geezers making historical epics or traditional Thai music is not going to circle the globe and trend on Twitter.

People like Milli must be allowed to be critical and explore their artistic side if Thailand’s soft power is to be successfully exported. Not only must they be given the freedom of expression to do so, the government must support them the way foreign powers have through financial backing and international exposure.

It is a big if, and no one in Thailand will be holding their breath, but we would all be very happily proven wrong if Prayut wants to put his money where his mouth is.


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