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Thailand’s Public Diplomacy during and post COVID-19: Making Connections More Meaningful and Sustainable

The COVID-19 pandemic is both a public health emergency and an economic crisis, like no other in history. Globally, there are 219 million cases and 4.55 million deaths, with the highest incidence in countries like the United States, Indiaand Brazil. There was a sharp contraction in world GDP in 2020. The pandemic highlighted the importance of an extraordinary policy response, in the midst of an extreme emergency which was epidemic, economic, geopolitical, and social.Southeast Asia was hard hit, with 5.2 million cases and over 100,000 deaths, or around 2.5% of the total world deaths. Poverty and inequality are likely to rise.

But for 2022 and beyond, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has an optimistic view---a V-shaped recovery scenario, where the real GDP projection in annual percent change for the world is 4.4%, for Asia 6.0%, and for Southeast Asia 5.1%. The IMF projects a sustained recovery in Southeast Asia, from 2.5 to 7.2%. Despite the potential recovery, life had been hard for everyone across the world. Providing services to the public, as well as representing their interests well during the pandemic, is therefore crucial in the work of the “public diplomat” and their work on “public diplomacy”.

In 1965, Edmund Gullion, an American diplomat and Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, defined “public diplomacy” as “an activity that deals with the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies. An activity that would encompass dimensions in international relations beyond traditional diplomacy; the cultivation of foreign public opinion; the interaction of private groups; the reporting of foreign affairs; media relations and inter-cultural communications”.

In essence, public diplomacy – targeted both at foreign and domestic public opinion – expands the field of traditional diplomacy, from state-to-state relations towards people-to-people relations, especially through “soft power” and “cultural diplomacy”.  It does so, essentially, by seeking to empower new agents in the conduct of diplomacy, from diplomats to broader sectors of society.

The Singapore International Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1991, in its conference “Public Diplomacy in Asia” in late July 2021 discussed the lessons learnt and how nations can be more effective in their practice of public diplomacy in a new normal. The spread of COVID-19 revealed the fragility of international cooperation, as governments closed borders and prioritized domestic health, social and political interests. At the same time, the pandemic also highlighted the need for global cooperation in combating the crisis and supporting economic recovery. Countries have since come under public scrutiny and judgment for how they have responded to the pandemic. In one session of the conference, the role of public diplomacy in global health was discussed. Following the global outbreak of COVID-19, there have been calls for greater international cooperation to combat the growing range of health issues and supply chain challenges that transcend national boundaries.

 For Thailand, before COVID-19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairsproactively organized outbound trips to promote Thai culture and sports as tools in the conduct of public diplomacy. These were interactive, fun and dynamic events. They aimed to engage foreign audiences with Thailand, old and new, by blending traditional craftsmanship and arts with modern styles, whether in the form of Thai silk exhibitions in the Middle East, Thai boxing demonstrations in Africa, or Thai film festivals with Thai movie stars in Asia.

However, travel restrictions during COVID-19 brought such outbound activities to a complete halt.  This was a blessing in disguise. It gave the ministry a rare and opportune occasion to rethink the conduct of public diplomacy in the “New Normal.” So, the ministry seized this opportunity by initiating a “New Normal: New Coolture” dialogue series to brainstorm ideas on how to best engage audiences on Thai culture and other salient strengths of Thailand during and beyond the pandemic. It aimed to gather policy inputsfrom a wide range of experts and experienced practitioners on how to connect people with “New Coolture” under “New Normal” circumstances. The theme “New Coolture” also sought to stimulate ideas on what currently constitutes Thai culture, to identify what was trendy, hip and chic and how it related to the current unprecedented pandemic context.

The three-part brainstorming series thus set out on its ambitious plan, to focus on the “what,” “how,” and “why” aspects of “New Coolture” from September 2020 – September 2021. The ministry hoped that the series would help to generate valuable insights and proposals to not only benefit the conduct of public diplomacy, but also to promote more meaningful and sustainable connections across societies for the years to come.

The first seminar on “New Normal: New Coolture” kicked off with arts and culture academics and representatives from the culture industry on “what” is the “New Coolture.” In this seminar, we looked into the kaleidoscope of Thai cultural products and explored the vast, untapped potential of new digital platforms to connect and engage with broader segments of society across the world. Arts and culture academics and magazine editors shared their recent digital/virtual adaptations of museums and the fashion industry to beat city lockdowns. We learned that culture academics were proactively adapting by publishing their work on social media, while fashion leaders were using digital platforms to promote their homegrown Thai products to the wider international market. Thailand’s film industry has similarly benefited from online platforms, such as Netflix, which has opened doors for local directors to reach an international audience.

The second seminar focused on the “New Normal: New Coolture in the Digital Age” and invited social media influencers of the day to share their experiences and insights on the “how.”  There was overwhelming agreement that authentic, real content is important for reaching out and communicating with people. Paying attention to current societal values and priorities is equally important if the government wanted to go beyond “giving out” information to actually “getting through” to people’s hearts and minds. In this increasingly interconnected world, people were associating more with being a global citizen and advocating for global goals, including calls to uphold human rights, promote sustainability and conserve the environment for future generations. In addition, social media influencers advised government agencies to be open-minded and to listen to the views of broad segments of society, as well as to allow space for creativity and value-added novel ideas.

The third and final part of the brainstorming series was aptly titled “New Normal: New Coolture – Bridging the Gap”.  At this session, new generation editors of popular online media outlets, and older generation editors of traditional print, elaborated on the “why” of public diplomacy. The old and new generation media editors alike advised that following issues, exchanging views and listening with empathy, are essential for bridging gaps. Consistent engagement and conversations also help to build bridges that bring people closer together. Once they are more closely connected, sharing becomes easier and more meaningful, which allows for more space to reinforce strengths and inspire change. 

Rethinking the concept of public diplomacy in the “New Normal” through the past year’s COVID restrictions certainly did not mean that public diplomacy came to a halt. The dialogue series carried on in parallel with the ministry’s continued work to empower new agents in the conduct of diplomacy, and to bridge the gap between different cultures and Thailand.  Throughout the pandemic, the ministry did so by pursuing a series of online activities both abroad and at home. This included promoting the role of our culture industry as agents in the conduct of diplomacy – also known as cultural diplomacy – such as the projection of the much talked of soft power following the LALISA phenomenon and BTS’s “Permission to Dance” at the United Nations in September this year.

Among cultural diplomacy highlights this year, was the “Thai Drama Festival 2021” in Tokyo, jointly organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the private sector in April to promote engagement between actors from popular Thai series and their Japanese fan club. Riding on the Thai wave, or “Tainuma” in Japan, the “Amazing Thai Festival Online, Osaka 2021” was organized a month later in May, as the first Thai festival streaming online to connect people abroad with the multiple dimensions and sensations of Thai culture.

On the domestic front, the ministry has pursued numerous public outreach activities to raise awareness on the interconnectedness between local and global issues, and to encourage society to take part in combatting the global challenges of our time, including through our campaign to reduce waste on World Environment Day. Most recently, during 28 August – 12 September 2021, the ministry collaborated with Point Avenue, an academic training school, to organize rounds of training and debate for the first MFA Inter-School Debating Championship 2021. An impressive 25 teams from 14 schools nationwide participated in debates in English on a wide range of critical social issues facing Thailand and countries around the world, such as the extent to which citizens with sufficient means should depend on the state for social welfare.

Youth in Thailand of all nationalities were given the chance to demonstrate their knowledge on the topics of the day and their skills in argumentation and persuasion. More importantly, they were able to exercise their talent as engaged citizens, who can meaningfully connect with society and propose sustainable solutions for real world problems. We are constantly evolving and adapting, and this is the kind of public outreach for empowerment that we are pursuing, for a more connected, understanding, and supportive world.

By Natapanu Nopakun and Yajai Bunnag,

Department of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand





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