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Former mayor of Pattaya, Ittipol Khunpluem, takes over as culture minister

Former mayor of Pattaya, Ittipol Khunpluem, who takes over as culture minister in General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s second government, will face plenty of challenges in using “soft power” to make Thailand the hub for creative industry in Asean.

The Nation conducted an exclusive interview with Prof Apinan Poshyananda, former permanent secretary of the Culture Ministry, on the incoming administration’s culture policies and whether the new minister will be able to rise to the challenges. Apinan is currently the artistic director of Bangkok Art Biennale.

What do you think the new culture minister will do to move the country forward using culture as a key tool?

Apinan: Congratulations to the new minister …  he will need a lot of support. We can expect to see a continuation of the last government’s culture policies based on mandates as propaganda for populism and Thai-ness. Songs that arouse nationalistic fervour, cultural festivals and parades to entertain the masses. But as former mayor of Pattaya, the new minister will clearly be able to differentiate between good virtues and bad vices.

The second Prayut government promises to promote Thai “purity” and “smile-a-while” campaigns as well as nationalistic jingoism, manipulating culture as a key tool.

What policy should the new minister issue immediately?

Apinan: The new minister urgently needs to diffuse the schism and distrust between the authorities and the public and youth regarding issues of censorship and controls on art-based protest such as students expressing their dissent through the decoration of trays used in teacher-respect ceremonies, and the work of [graffiti artist] Headache Stencil.

Instead of controlling expressions of dissent, he should immediately order the removal of the Buddha image created by National Artist Panya Vijinthanasarn, which is being disrespectfully displayed in front of the toilets at the Paradiso Café at the international art exhibition Venice Biennale. Even foreign visitors have raised concerns about the inappropriateness and lack of decorum in the display of this work. The curator, artist and director of the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture should take responsibility for this.

The new minister should also urgently push for the opening of the Contemporary Art Museum, which has been put on hold for several years. This unfinished project near the Thailand Cultural Centre (on Ratchadaphisek Road) has become the Culture Ministry’s “monument of embarrassment”. The culture minister in Prayut’s first government failed miserably in ensuring its completion, reflecting the junta government’s ineffectiveness in areas of culture.

Thailand as a cultural hub for Asean is just a hollow dream that is bound to end in failure. With this diabolical project under construction for so long, many questions need to be answered. Where has all the money gone? Why do contractors keep abandoning the project? Why are there no concrete plans for exhibitions, collections or the training of art experts?

Opening soon? No way, because this year’s budget will most likely be diverted to the cultural propaganda of Prayut’s many ‘smiley’ projects.

The Phalang Pracharat Party claims it will make the capital Bangkok 5.0, dividing it into nine zones for innovation with 5G technology. What do you think about this policy?

Apinan: Reality check! Thailand has gone backwards to about 2.5G over the past five years. This is just another stick-and-carrot policy of hollow dreams. Wait a minute … do we really need these innovative zones, when the creative class is losing its freedom of innovative thinking?

Art is being decentralised, with art spaces and interesting projects spreading across the Kingdom and reflecting its diversity. Should the government support them financially?

Apinan: Yes, but this Culture Ministry will only provide financial support to specific provinces. For instance, it may perhaps consider the revival of the mega Pattaya Biennale at Bali Hai, or the annual buffalo racing contest in Chon Buri.

How can the government sustain cultural development?

Apinan: By not suffocating creative imagination through cultural militancy, cultural superiority and nationalistic arrogance.