Hathairat Jiewjinda
Cultural Officer, Department of Cultural Promotion

Today, it is generally acknowledged that indigenous culture and knowledge around the world is under threat by globalization, rights infringement and violation, and other effects of modernization, including the general lack of respect for traditional culture and the individuals or communities through which that culture is manifested.

Over the past several decades, the loss and rapid deterioration of cultural heritage has prompted an international effort to safeguard cultural heritage in general and intangible culture heritage in particular. The emphasis on intangible cultural heritage should not come as a surprise since such cultural heritage represents the creativity of the communities that have created and applied it to their daily lives. Since developing any form of intangible cultural heritage is dependent on the environment, lifestyle, and context of the individual community, these cultural elements can be seen as representations of a community’s identity. This is why safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is so important. Not safeguarding it would erase the identity of a people and force communities to move toward an international monoculture based on foreign ideals.

Department of Cultural Promotion

In Thailand, as part of its national effort to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, the Department of Cultural Promotion (DCP) has launched a series of projects with a primary mission to inventory the intangible cultural heritage of the nation. The inventorying projects show the country’s dedication to safeguarding its people’s heritage and promote community involvement, which ultimately increases the communities’ sense of pride in their local traditions.

The DCP has been operating under the following objectives related to intangible cultural heritage.

  • To record the background history, wisdom, and identity of the intangible cultural heritage
  • To create a database on the intangible cultural heritage of Thailand
  • To enhance community, group, or individual pride in intangible cultural heritage
  • To promote and develop the rights of communities to conserve, perpetuate, restore, and safeguard local and national intangible cultural heritage
  • To prepare the groundwork for Thailand becoming a State party to the UNESCO 2003 Convention of the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural heritage
  • To draft laws on the continued protection and research of intangible cultural heritage

As part of these objectives, from 2005 to 2009, the DCP compiled Thailand’s first national inventory of intangible cultural heritage through fieldwork and collaboration between researchers and local communities. From the inventory listing, 318 elements or forms of intangible cultural heritage have carefully been studied and further selected to receive recognition as part of Thailand’s national cultural treasures.

Thailand’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Domains

Thailand’s inventory is composed of into seven domains that best accommodate the range of Thai cultural expressions and complement the structure of the existing Thai database. These seven domains closely resemble the five domains of the 2003 Convention, which will help pave the way for Thailand to become a State Party to the Convention. The seven domains are described below; the numerals in parentheses indicate the total number of national cultural treasures registered under the domain as of 2015.

Performing Arts (67) are expressions of emotion, feelings, or stories through producing sound (singing or music playing), through body movement (dance), through object manipulation (puppeteering), and through other gestures. The domain includes music, performance, music and performance in rituals, and folk song.

Folk Literature (58) includes the stories that reflect the local way of life and are transmitted in either oral or written form. The domain includes folk literature, oral histories, incantations, folk verbal scripts, idioms and adages, riddles, and treatises.

Linguistic and Communication Tools (27) are primarily focused on language as ideational and interpersonal modes and media of communication. Included in this domain are the Thai language, regional dialects of Thai, and other ethnic languages spoken on a local level.

Social Practices, Rituals, and Festive Events (35) are expressions of established customary or traditional behaviors that have been transmitted for generations. The domain includes manners, customs, and ceremonies or rites.

Knowledge and Practices Concerning Nature and the Universe (40) is made up of groups’, communities’, and regions’ knowledge, abilities, and skills for harmoniously existing with nature and the universe. Elements included here involve gastronomy and culinary arts, health care, astrology and astronomy, and natural resources management and settlement.

Traditional Craftsmanship (57) is the domain applied to a group’s knowledge and skills in making handicrafts that reflect their identity, social development, and culture. Textiles and textile-product making, basketry, lacquerware, pottery, metalwork, woodwork, leatherwork, ornamentation, folk art, and other kinds of craftsmanship are included in this domain.

Traditional Sports (34) are interactions or competitions between individuals or communities as forms of entertainment or recreation that help with physical and mental development, all of which are reflections on the community’s way of life and identity. This domain is made up of folk games, folk sports, martial arts, and other forms of traditional sport.

Inventorying to What End

DCP is currently drafting a law on intangible cultural heritage to enhance the policies and tools for safeguarding Thailand’s intangible cultural heritage. Once the law is enacted, it should further promote a larger role for local governments and communities in the inventorying process.

It is important to note that the DCP’s inventorying efforts and listing of national cultural treasures have not been designed for the sole purpose of having lists. Instead, listing can be useful as part of an overall safeguarding strategy. By listing the elements, the DCP is acknowledging the importance of local heritage and promoting cultural tourism, which can lead to sustainable development. In addition, this acknowledgement is giving local communities a greater sense of pride in their intangible heritage, and it allows communities to also see how their heritage is a reflection of the nation’s overall prestige as a unique member of global society. As Thailand moves forward with ratifying the Convention, it is important for local communities to see how their local activities can and do play a larger role for the future of humanity.