This story by Manta Klangboonkrong was published in the October-November issue of Elite+ magazine.
Photos by Kaan Suchanin
As Thailand prioritises its creative industry, Shigeru Aoyagi, director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Bangkok since May 2018, talked to Elite+ about promoting Thailand’s rich cultural heritage
You have served with Unesco for a long time. How did it start?
I began my career in the Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for Unesco in Tokyo, where I worked on culture and education projects in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the fields of literacy and the promotion of inter-cultural dialogue. I joined Unesco formally in July 2002 as chief of the Literacy and Non-Formal Education section in Paris, where I worked for the Education for All programme, promoting literacy and non-formal education.
From 2006 to 2011, I served as director of Unesco in Kabul as Unesco representative to Afghanistan. It was very exciting to be able to initiate a large-scale Empowerment of Literacy in Afghanistan project in collaboration with the Afghan and Japanese Governments to improve the literacy, numeracy and vocational skills of 1 million Afghan youth and adults.
In 2012, I was transferred to New Delhi and became director of Unesco there, while also serving as Unesco representative to India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Amid complex politics, I led the development of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Framework for Action for Education 2030 with member states and United Nations agencies, including the UN Children’s Fund.
I was appointed director of the Unesco Regional Education Bureau for Asia and the Pacific and Unesco representation for Thailand, Myanmar, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Singapore in May 2018.
My educational background was helpful in terms of working with people from a wide range of backgrounds for planning, implementing and managing Unesco’s programmes. I have studied at three universities in three countries, pursuing three subjects: international cooperation at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies; data communications at Brighton University, the United Kingdom; and distance education at Indira Gandhi National Open University.
What are your responsibilities as director of Unesco Bangkok?
Unesco was established in the immediate aftermath of World War II in 1945 with a mandate to promote a culture of peace through education, science and culture. Our charter has a famous preamble: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
As the largest field office of the organisation, Unesco Bangkok operates under a vision of everyone in Asia and the Pacific enjoying and contributing to a peaceful and sustainable future. My responsibilities are leading and encouraging the team and managing the office and the programme, which encompasses five areas – education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communication and information. Our goal is to support countries across the Asia-Pacific region to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and see the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to fruition.
What is the role of Unesco Bangkok?
As a regional bureau for education, Unesco Bangkok serves 46 member states across Asia and the Pacific– from Central Asia to the Pacific Islands.
As a “cluster office”, Unesco Bangkok implements programmes in the Mekong countries: Thailand, Myanmar, the Lao PDR and Singapore, as well as Viet Nam and Cambodia, in cooperation with the Unesco country and “antenna” offices.
Unesco works closely with national governments, with academic institutions, civil society organisations and the private sector. As part of the UN family, Unesco collaborates with other UN agencies to advance the goals of peace and sustainable development. In the area of education, we work with the UN Children’s Fund and the UN Populations Fund. In natural sciences, we cooperate with the UN Environmental Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Other partners include UN Habitat, the UN World Tourism Organisation and the International Labour Organisation. In terms of social and human sciences, the UN Development Programme and UN Women rank among our collaborators, while in communications and information, we coordinate with UN Development Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The general public sees Unesco as an agent of promotion of culture and education. What other roles and responsibilities is Unesco responsible for that many might not be unaware of?
Unesco has a wide mandate.
In the field of natural science, our Global Geopark Programme recognises sites of geologic significance where protection, sustainable development and education programmes require active implementation.The Unesco International Oceanographic Commission is now preparing the UN Decade of Ocean Science, which will run from 2021 to 2030. Over that decade, we will ascertain the fragility of oceans and coastal environments and measure the sustainability of sea resources.
Under our communications and information sector, the Memory of the World programme aims to protect documentary heritage, such as ancient manuscripts. Thailand has five important documentary collections in the Memory of the World Register, including the King Ramkhamhaeng Inscription from Sukhothai.
We also champion freedom of expression and the safety of journalists, with World Press Freedom Day commemorated on the 3rd of May annually and an International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on the 2nd of November.
What is Unesco’s Bangkok’s cultural role? Can you talk about recent successes?
Unesco is guided by six conventions in the area of culture:
• The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (The Hague Convention, and its two protocols of 1954 and 1999)
• The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
• The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage
• The 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage
• The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage
• The 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions
Unesco’s strategic cultural engagement continues to expand. The focus is not only protecting well known forms of cultural heritage such as World Heritage, but also in safeguarding underwater cultural heritage, intangible cultural heritage and cultural propertysuch as artefacts. We also promote the connection between culture and sustainable development. Unesco believes that culture is essential in terms of sustainable development, and we support cultural diversity in every form.
Encouraging diverse cultural expression through the arts is essential. The arts have played a defining role in society since the dawn of time. In the middle ages, for example, royal families and aristocracy patronised artists, painters and musicians to create paintings, sculptures and music.
We consider it essential not to overlook the fact that arts and culture have economic value. In this era of globalisation and an ongoing fourth industrial revolution, transfer, trading and even replication of arts and culture is taking place at an unprecedented pace. The sector is vulnerable, and it is incumbent on us to respect and recognise the integrity of original works and intellectual property. It’s our responsibility to globally strengthen the protection and promotion of arts and culture.
Unesco conventions, once ratified globally, will be instrumental in achieving that.
As director of Unesco Bangkok, how do you see the potential of Thailand’s cultural and creative industry?
No doubt, the potential is almost limitless.
Cultural and creative industries contribute around US$2.25 trillion to global GDP, employing around 30 million people. In Thailand, I see the cultural and creative industries flourishing due to the activity of artists and cultural entrepreneurs. They produce a vast array of goods and services that significantly contribute to the economy.
Thailand is poised to become a major hub of cultural exchange via tourism and cultural events at a regional, national and international level. Most recently, the Khon masked dance drama was listed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List in 2018.
In addition, Unesco has recognised Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Ban Chiang as cultural World Heritage Sites, along with two natural World Heritage sites that are also popular destinations: Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai and Thung Yai-Huay Kha Kaeng.
Meanwhile, and also in Thailand, Satun was designated a Unesco “global geopark” in 2018, in recognition of its Palaeozoic Era fossils, while Chiang Mai and Phuket have been recognised as Unesco “creative cities” for crafts and folk arts and their local cuisines.
Seen together, all of these destinations are attractive for millions of people both within and outside Thailand, making them potentially powerful economic drivers. Tourism, after all, is a leading Thai industry, aided by the country’s richness of culture and history.
What do you consider the most successful example of the cultural and creative industry in the Asia-Pacific region?
Our flagship programme is Unesco’s Creative Cities Network, which is gaining great momentum and visibility. Launched in 2004, the network promotes cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development.
It’s about cities putting creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their local development plans and actively cooperating with other networked cities. Collectively, this amounts to 180 cities worldwide – 35 of them in Asia: a reflection of the vibrancy of the creative and arts sector in the region.
Many of these member cities will be meeting in October this year at the Asia-Pacific Creative Cities Conference in Adelaide, Australia. The conference aims to create a platform for regional collaboration and showcase cultural leadership in the region.
So far, what have been the biggest obstacles or challenges for Thailand in terms of the cultural and creative industry?
Globally, many countries are facing challenges in terms of the creative and cultural sectors, including obstacles to freedom of expression and media, entrenched gender inequality and even the physical safety of artists. In 2016, 430 artists were physically attacked due to expression of artistic license.
These problems are not unknown in Thailand, to be frank. We have to address these issues to promote the potential of the Thai creative sector.
What is Unesco Bangkok’s role in enhancing and nurturing Thailand’s creative and cultural industry?
Unesco’s mandate since 1945 has been to preserve the diversity of cultures, advance mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples, and promote the free flow of ideas by word and image.
The 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression is key for Thailand as a means of promoting the creative and cultural industries. Once Thailand ratifies the Convention, it will provide a framework to further enhance and enforce cultural policies that further benefit these industries.
Thailand’s cultural and creative industries are important in generating livelihoods and contributing to well-being and shared understanding. They undoubtedly demonstrate the role of culture in terms of maintaining peace and sustainable development. Culture can play an essential role in dealing with the disruptions that face us today: aging societies, attacks against diversity, and the transformative impact of technologies such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things.
Unesco will continue to work with Thailand to build on the nation’s cultural heritage and creativity as key resources to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals.
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