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A Cultural Policy for Thailand's National Development

Amara Raksasataya

The development of a cultural policy for any country is an extremely complicated task. There are many obstacles. First of all, culture is an abstract concept, thus elusive to define, to limit its parameters and scope. Everybody defines culture to suit himself. When a more comprehensive sophisticated definition is attempted, it becomes more difficult to explain. Secondly, the formulation of a cultural policy raises a set of complicated problems — what to include, how far, how much it will cost, how can it be implemented, how effective it will be and for how long, how to evaluate, how it can be made self-sustaining, who should administer it, what will be the returns on the investment. Thirdly, how much of its resources can a country commit to cultural preservation, promotion and development.

Despite all these difficulties, this paper is attempting to address these problems with the conviction that a more concrete policy could be developed for Thailand and other countries.

Meaning of culture

While ‘culture’ in many languages is a common word that conveys some acceptable meanings, it is also an elusive term when we want to know its exact meaning and scope, especially how to promote it, or how to make use of it in any particular way. It Hindi, the word sanskrti means a conglomeration of values, beliefs, traditions born out of heritage. In Chinese, wen-hua literally means sentence-making, connoting respect for the written word. In many Western countries the term derives from the Latin cultura, which means a set of knowledge. In Thailand, a relatively new word, wattana-dharm has been coined. It means development, growth or evolution from an original state of nature (Raksasataya 1994:3-4).

When one wants to systematize its meanings it becomes officialise, with an accompanying complexity that most people will have difficulty understanding. In Unesco’s definition, culture includes ‘the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs’ (Unesco 1982:41).

The Royal Institute of Thailand defines wattana-dharm as ‘things that make a group grow, a group’s way of life. In the Culture Act of 1942, it means characteristics that show growth, order, harmonious progress of the country, and good moral standard of the people. Academically, it means behaviour and things that people in the group have produced or created from learning from each other and things that people make common use of within that group’ (The Royal Institute 1983:734).

Even the office of the National Culture Commission of the Ministry of Education could not offer an official definition of the term. In many of its publications, the term is defined differently by various authorities, professors and learned men (Office of National Culture Commission 1994). In its most recent publication it gives two meanings. First, as a general meaning, ‘culture is a way of life of people in the society, the pattern of behaviour and the manifestation of feeling and thought in various situations which other members of the same society can understand, appreciate, recognize and use together, which will lead to development of quality of life of the people in that particular society’.

Second, as an operational definition, ‘culture means growth which is the result of relationship system between human beings themselves, human beings and societies, and human beings and nature. It can be classified into 3 aspects, namely spiritual, societal and material. Culture can be accumulated and transmitted from one generation to the next one, from one society to another until it becomes a pattern that people can learn and use to produce products and goods, both abstract and material. They are worthy of research, conservation, rehabilitation, development, transmission, promotion, creation of expertise, and exchange in order to create things which will help human beings to live in peace, happiness and freedom which are the base of human civilization’ (Office of the National Culture Commission, 1992:6).

With such vagueness, it has been very difficult for the government of Thailand to develop its cultural policies and implement them effectively.

Attempts at cultural promotion in Thailand

Before 1932, Thailand was governed under an absolute monarchy. The monarchs were the patrons of all arts and cultural activities, especially at the national level. Palaces, public edifices, temples were places where all cultural activities took place and artists and learned men met. Several kings were themselves great artists and poets.

After the change to a constitutional monarchy or parliamentary system on 24 June 1932, successive governments, 51 cabinets altogether, paid different degrees of attention to national and endogenous culture. In 1943 the government created the Cultural Council. In 1953 it was enlarged and became the Ministry of Culture. Twelve national preferences were announced, covering various aspects of national culture — patriotism, new name of the country (Thailand instead of Siam), honouring the national banner, consumption manners, nation-building effort, national anthem for the king, language and literature, national dress, daily chores, assistance to children, the elderly and the disabled. Several other cultural aspects were strongly promoted.

After 1958 a new authoritarian group came to power. Its government wanted to expedite economic development. The First Five-year Economic Development Plan was announced in 1961 with no mention of cultural promotion. The Ministry of Culture was abandoned. A small division in the Ministry of Education was allowed. Though the successive five-year plans brought in a social component, cultural aspects remained ignored.

Economic development in Thailand has been regarded as highly successful. Material development does bring in many undesirable side-effects resulting in massive inequality and deterioration of the environment and cultural life. In 1979, the government decided to enlarge the Cultural Division by making it the office of the National Culture Commission with departmental status within the Ministry of Education.

In 1981, the government issued an announcement of the Office of the Prime Minister on a national cultural policy. Later the government announced detailed guideline, which provided an impetus to the cultural promotion effort (Office of National Culture Commission 1986). The Seventh National Economic and Social Development Plan (1992-93) has included the Framework and Direction of National Cultural Plan, which was adopted by the Cabinet on 27 December 1989 (Office of National Culture Commission 1994b:1-2).

At the moment the Eighth National Economic and Social Development Plan is being prepared for 1997-2001. It is expected that the cultural dimension will receive greater attention.

In addition to the Seventh Plan, which provided general direction and resources to implement regular plans, the present government has included culture in its Policy Statement to Parliament on 21 October 1992. The government will ‘campaign to engage people, organizations, institutions and communities in activities relating to conserve, promote and propagate Thai arts and culture more actively’ (Council of Ministers 1992:37).

In order to implement this policy the government has proclaimed the following programmes:

1. Campaign for Thai Culture Year in 1994: It provided special funds. Several public organizations and business firms provided funds to promote cultural understanding through television, radio and press.

2. Thai Cultural Heritage Programme: This is a Cabinet decision to extend the Campaign Year 1994 for 3 more years with different special emphases. For 1995 the Program emphasizes ‘Culture and Development’, for 1996 ‘Culture and Tourism’, and for 1997 ‘Culture and Mass Media’.

Current cultural promotion activities

A. Office of the National Culture Commission

Under the Thai Cultural Heritage Program (1994-97), the Office of National Culture Commission developed six main programmes, each with several projects, namely:

1 . Public Relations Programme with 3 projects

2. Cultural Activities Promotion Programme with 11 projects

3. Books and Manuals on Culture Learning Programme with 3 projects

4. Public Sector Implementation Coordination Programme with 4 projects

5. Private Sector Implementation Coordination Programme with 7 projects

6. Programme Evaluation Programme with 3 projects (Office of NCC, 1994b:10-19).

While it is not practical to go into the details of all of these programmes and projects, it would be useful to see the 11 projects in the Cultural Activities Promotion Programme. They are:

1. Project to promote loyalty to key institutions: the country, religions, and the monarch.

2. Project to promote family and communal life of the Thai people.

3. Project to promote Thai tradition, both national and local.

4. Project to promote the proper use of Thai language including speech, reading, writing and poetry.

5. Project to promote order, discipline, and values.

6. Project to promote virtues and ethics.

7. Project to promote the Thai way of life and folk wisdom.

8. Project to promote the Thai way of dressing.

9. Project to promote Thai arts.

10. Project to promote culture and tourism to ensure that tourists understand and appreciate Thai culture.

11. Project to promote culture and development in order to apply cultural dimensions to develop quality of life and society along with economic development with emphasis on sustainable development which balances man, society and environment (see details in Office of National Culture Commission, 1994c).

B. Other Government Agencies

In Thailand there are other public agencies that are related to cultural conservation, promotion and development, namely:

1. Department of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education. This department takes care of all religions which have followers in Thailand. Since 95 per cent of Thai people are Buddhists, there are over 300,000 priests, 30,000 temples. The department has to look after temple property and assist the council of Senior Priests in their governance.

2. Department of Fine Arts, Ministry of Education, deals with all aspect of fine arts including restoration of archaeological sites, maintaining historical sites, buildings and parks, as well as national library and museum systems. It also runs schools for classical artists and national theatres.

3. National Identity Board, Office of the Prime Minister, deals with unique aspects of Thai national characteristics, mainly the promotion of the institution of the King.

4. Universities and educational institutions. All educational institutions have as a main function the promotion of cultural heritage. However, Silpakorn (Finer Arts) University is the one with special emphasis on arts and culture. It has the only School of Thai Architecture, and strong departments of archaeology and history.

C. Evaluation

Despite a lot of effort on the part of the public and private sectors, the Thai cultural heritage is in danger of being inundated by materialism, monetary domination, American and European culture, and to a certain extent Chinese, Indian and Japanese culture. The government’s efforts are usually intermittent and inadequate to sustain continuing involvement and appreciation among the younger generation. Fewer people go to temples, attending religious and cultural activities. Many traditional arts have no inheritors and subscribers.

An alternative cultural policy

As a matter of fact the cultural policy is inadequate, not comprehensive, and resource poor. To implement such a policy effectively is an impossible task. Even to evaluate the state of the cultural condition of the country to establish a benchmark is not simple. No one has systematically attempted to do so.

This author would like to suggest an alternative policy for the promotion of Thai culture which would include cultural dimension in the national development mainstream. In order to do so, it is necessary to ponder the following stages:

1. To define the term culture clearly, and simply.

2. To define the scope and activities of culture more clearly, in order to render them amenable to policy formulation.

3. To develop a strategy that will make culture pay for itself, economically and socially, to ensure sustainable viability.

Culture Redefined

Culture should be defined as ‘anything that man has developed, improved, grown, altered from an original state of nature basically to improve the quality of life of man’.

Whatever retains its original state of nature is natural, unadulterated, unaltered, therefore primitive. When a man uses his hands to catch a fish and eats it raw it is uncultured. The culture related to fishing begins as soon as man begins to use tools to catch fish, and uses fire and utensils to cook and eat it. Therefore the stone age, copper age, iron age, up to the nuclear age, are major steps of human cultural upgrading.

Men improve things normally with the intention that they will make life easier, more satisfactory, more secure, more happy. Culture therefore often denotes better things in life. Though in fact in some cases, culture may bring more suffering — such as the cultivation of the poppy and turning it into opium and heroin, or sexual permissiveness leading to AIDS and death.

Culture can be transmitted from one generation to the next, from one locality to another, etc., often with some modifications.

Culture has different stages of development. It usually starts with a few men and their families. As human beings are social animal who live in groups, the individual’s culture spread to group and then to commune. As a commune grows larger or communicates with other communes, communal culture would spread to a region or larger societies or other ethnic groups, eventually to the national level.

Of course one may subdivide culture physically into as many levels as one wishes; but here four levels seem adequate for policy-making (see fig. 1).



National Culture

Regional, Urban Culture

Group, Tribal, Rural Culture

Individual and Familial Culture


fig.9.1 State of Nature and Cultural Development

Table 9.1

Some Cultural Activities at Different Levels

Individual and Family Level Groups. Tribes, Local Level Region, Urban Level National Level


Family tie, marriage  do.  do.  Civil Law
Child rearing  do.   do. do.
Caring of elderly  do.  do.  Social Welfare
Family rites  do.  do.  Ceremonies
Communication,  Language  Vebal, Written  Literature  National Language
Learning  Education  do., Training  Education Systems
Faith, Value, Ethics  Folk Belief,  Religions  do.
Family authority, Creed  Tribal governance  Government  Government, Politics,  Idiologies
Food Production  do.  do.  do

Agriculture,  Gardening

do.  do. do
Animal Husbandry   do. do.  do.
Fishing  do.  do.  Fishery
Food Preparation,    do. do. Culinary arts
Eating Manner   do.  do. Social etiquette

Clothing  Preparation  Dressing

Folk costume  Regional Costume do.

Building, House 

Communal Site  Public Buildings 

Architectural Style

Furniture  do.  do.  do.
Health Care  do.  do.  do.


Herbal, Acupuncture  Massage 

do. Pharmacy, Medicine
Household Utensils   do. do.  do.
Working Tools, Crafts    do. do. do.



do., material arts do., local army, competition Sports, games Military training
Song and Dance Music, Plays Folk arts do. do.
Painting do. do. do.
Sculpture do. do. do.,Monuments
Scope and activities of culture

While nobody can develop a comprehensive list of cultural activities, aspects, elements, etc., a suggested list on Table 1 below is merely an attempt to provide a basis for the development of a cultural policy.

From the list one can see that there are a lot of items that man has developed from a state of nature — things and non-material abstractions that he needs to survive. Once his life and his family are secure, several things will be developed for the use of his group, his society, and finally his country.

Strategy for cultural development

Since cultural policies in the past failed because of complication, lack of resources, lack of implementation methods and lack of sustained interest, the new strategy will address these inadequacies:

1. The concept must be redefined and simplified.

2. Resources should be drawn principally from individuals voluntarily, smaller communities, groups, non-governmental organizations, religious and philanthropic organizations, educational institutions, etc., because there are so many things with cultural components spreading throughout the country that a government cannot look after all of them.

3. The resources from the government should be considered as secondary or supportive. Government should stimulate, co-ordinate, motivate and legislate private activities. It may support research and subsidize such activities. It should operate and control very few activities such as archaeological and historical sites, national treasures, protected areas. It may have to try to protect endangered cultural heritages such as wall painting, ancient vernacular languages and literature, palaces, public edifices. The national government should encourage local governments to support more cultural programmes.

4. Government should motivate, educate, demonstrate that material development at the expense of spiritual development or environmental degradation would not bring happiness, harmony, integrity, pride and honour and other elements of quality of life to most people, while culture can enrich the life of the people.

5 Government should emphasize that culture is worthy of conservation, promotion and development. Culture would pay back in terms of happiness and higher quality of life. Better still, it would give financial returns to those engaged in cultural activities.

The following occupations and undertakings can be promoted:

1. All folk arts and crafts, village traditions and rites. They can be a great attraction.

2. All performing and visual arts, music, dance, plays (including puppet-shadow), and boxing.

3. Personal museums for painting, artifacts, Buddha images, houses, socio-cultural museums, horticultural gardens.

4. Tourism, especially to historical, religious and cultural sites.

5. Hotels, resorts and recreational sites should be arranged in Thai styles. Meals and drinks, games, orchestras and performance, dresses, etc., can be offered in Thai style.

6. Temples can be used as places for education, training, continuing education, games and recreation other than for religious purposes, both for their own sake and for inducing people to get closer to religious training.

7. Basic needs of life such as food, clothing, shelter, even medicine should be added to cultural amenities.

8. Some old towns with traditional culture should restore their walls, palaces, temples, public places, traditional houses, dress, arts and crafts. This will help revive cultural activities as well as local economies.

In this way, cultural activities are compatible and complementary to economic development. It is well understood that in the next century — a few years from now — traditional economic activities such as agriculture and manufacturing will need only about 20 per cent of employable manpower. The rest will have to be channelled to service industries. Much of these could be well in culture-related undertakings. Cultural development can become an integral component of economic and social development.


Council of Ministers, 1992, Statement of Policy of the Council of Ministers by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to the National Assembly, 21 October (in Thai)

Office of the National Culture Commission, 1986, National Culture Policy and Guidelines on Protection, Promotion and Development of Culture. Bangkok: Kurusapa (in Thai)

———, 1992, Ministry of Education, Meaning and Scope of Cultural Activities. Bangkok: Kurusapa (in Thai)

———, 1994a, Culture and Development. Bangkok: Kurusapa (in Thai)

———, 1994b, Main Plan of Thai Cultural Heritage Project 1995-1997. Bangkok (in Thai)

———, 1994c, Guidelines for the Promotion of 11 Thai Cultural Activities. Bangkok: Kurusapa (in Thai)

Raksasataya, Amara, 1994, ‘Cultural Dimension of Asian Paths to Development’. Keynote address for Regional Consultation for Asia and the Pacific of the World Commission on Culture and Development, Manila, 21-23 November 1994

The Royal Institute, 1983, Dictionary. Bangkok (in Thai)

Unesco, 1982, Final Report of the World Conference on Cultural Policies’. Cited in World Decade Secretariat, Culture and Development: A Study. Paris: Unesco


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