The race to bag cultural icons

Hand gesture claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia

Published on 28 August 2011

Author(s): Bangkok Post

Type:  News

Thailand risks being left behind as regional rivalry builds to list heritage items

Both countries lay claim to ownership of the jeeb _ a hand position where the thumb touches the index finger and the three other fingers are splayed out.

In 2008, Cambodia persuaded Unesco to include Khmer shadow theatre on a list of intangible cultural heritage items. The hand gesture is part of the dance.

Thailand, however, has yet to ratify the convention allowing it to submit cultural heritage items to Unesco for contention as official intangible cultural items. A Unesco listing results in international recognition from the item, and funding to help preserve it.

Culture Minister Sukumol Khunploem downplayed reports that Cambodia had ''stolen'' a Thai cultural icon. She said a Unesco listing has nothing to do with intellectual property or copyright issues. ''It is normal for countries in the same region to share similar cultural traits,'' she said.

Nonetheless, some academics are worried Thailand could be left behind in the race to register cultural items, as tourist earnings and funds for preservation are at stake. They say that if anything can help save intangible cultural heritage items, it is an inscription by Unesco.

Thailand is drawing up its own list of intangible treasures, which it can submit to Unesco once it has ratified the treaty governing such inscriptions. A list started by the Cultural Promotion Department in 2009 now has 50 intangible heritage items, including the Thai Shadow Puppet Theatre.

Another 30 items, including famed spicy Thai soup of tom yum kung, Thai-style kites and banana stalk carvings are likely to join them. Apinan Poshyananda, director-general of the department, said Thailand needs to tell people what these treasures are and why they are important.

''We must be able to explain these to ourselves before entering the race for registration,'' said Mr Apinan. Intangible heritage items are based on tradition or, as Unesco puts it, are living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to successors.

These include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts, and even knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, its website notes.

Unesco says intangible heritage helps maintain cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation. ''An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with inter-cultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life,'' it says.

''The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next,'' said Unesco.

Since 2003, when the Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage came into effect, Unesco has listed 16 intangible heritage items in need of urgent safeguarding, and 213 items of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

A Unesco listing results in intangible heritage items gaining international attention. Resources to help support preservation work usually flow to those countries where the items are based.
However, some officials regard the process of submitting items for recognition as a ''race'', as Unesco does not approve all applications put to it.

Cambodia's Royal Ballet and Khmer shadow theatre, or sbek thom, are among intangible cultural heritage of humanity items recognised by Unesco. Some scholars are worried Unesco's listing of the Cambodian items could deprive Thailand of the right to list similar treasures including Thai shadow play, or nang yai.

Mr Apinan said countries can apply to lodge items which are similar, even if not all are successful in gaining a listing. Mr Apinan said cultural heritage can cross national borders. Countries in Southeast Asia have shared cultural traits, which explains why Khmer shadow theatre might look like Thai shadow play. Each heritage item evolves with different details that define its value, so has its own qualities to compete for a listing.

Cambodia's sbek Thom, Thailand's nang yai, and Indonesia's Wanyang puppet theatre, for instance, were influenced by Indian tradition, but have over time evolved to have their own gestures and movements.

''We need to be open-minded as we do not suffer any disadvantage. We can always propose our own intangible heritage item,'' said Mr Apinan. But Thailand cannot nominate items for a Unesco listing because it has yet to ratify the convention.

The Culture Ministry is preparing papers for the cabinet and parliament to allow the country to join the convention. The ministry has also drafted legislation to help safeguard the country's intangible heritage.

Under the bill, a national committee for safeguarding intangible heritage treasures will be created, and a fund set up to support the work. The department has allocated a budget to help safeguard local treasures. Each province gets only 40,000 baht.

State agencies have to find other ways to raise funding, including organising cultural fairs. ''Intangible heritage is actually the world's heritage. We should try to preserve it,'' said Mr Apinan.

Phrakhru Phitaksilapakhom, an abbot of Wat Khanon in Ratchaburi province, where Thai Nang Yai Puppet Drama is based, and which won a Unesco award for safeguarding intangible heritage in 2007, said a Unesco listing would help the world recognise the treasure.

However, local people can help sustainable cultural preservation even more, he says. Intangible heritage is prone to degradation and could become extinct without efforts by local people to preserve it. ''If people know about their culture, they will appreciate it and want to preserve it naturally. ''It cannot be done merely by listing it in reports,'' said the abbot, who has opened a community centre to pass on knowledge of the Shadow Puppet Drama to young people.

ITEMS ON LAST YEAR'S POPULAR THAI INTANGIBLE HERITAGE LIST

  1. Muay Thai boxing
  2. Guide-books about Thai cats
  3. Thai numbers guide-books
  4. Spirit chanting books for Thai buffaloes
  5. Spirit chanting books for rice
  6. Spirit chanting books for ordaining monks
  7. The Khun Chang Khun Phan folk tale
  8. The Sri Thanon Chai folk tale
  9. Buddha sculpturing
  10. Likay musical folk drama

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