Anwesha Hazarika

India and Thailand have completed 74 years of their friendship. This closeness happened mostly in the post-colonial period, which brought the two countries closer on an equal front because of colonial socio-political history. The arena of international diplomacy has changed manifold from the late 1990’s after globalization hit the world tremendously.

The concept of realism experienced a heavy blowout after liberalism preached the mechanism of embracing, adjusting and co-operative diplomacy around the world. However, the dominant facet of power has gotten a new face in recent times, as ‘soft power’. The dichotomy between hard power’ and ‘soft power’ enunciated by Joseph Nye, led the concept of soft power to be victorious in contemporary global politics because of its endurance and sustainability.

According to him, ‘Soft Power’ denotes the ability to co-opt rather than coerce, where the currency includes culture, political values and foreign policies. In the nuclear world, ‘Hard Power’ could least sustained with its techniques of military interventions, coercive diplomacy and economic sanctions.

Determining the importance of friendship and alliance in IR should be strategic and national interest favoring. India and Thailand are geo-strategically close neighbors, connecting South Asia with South East Asia and has a deep cultural bond with each other since pre-history. India has the world’s second-largest population and Asia’s third-largest economy, making it an obvious neighboring nation for Thailand.

Thailand is an emerging economy like India and is a gateway for India to the South-East Asian nations and regional organizations like ASEAN. The lack of any records of confrontations and dissidence between both nations is a green signal for the hand-in-hand exercise of friendship and partnership. A country’s soft power, according to Nye, rests on three resources: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority).”

‘Culture as Soft power’

The basic meaning of the term culture is ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular group of people or a civilization. It has characteristics of uniqueness and values within it. However, culture is dynamic in its nature and evolving with passage of time but as “soft power”, culture is relative to politics, economy and the military.

India’s rich and varied culture has smitten the Thais since time immemorial and subsequently, this ‘culture’ has permeated within International Relations to be a constituent regime of relations between these two countries. Ideology, social system, organizational mechanism, living style, development model, cultural traditions, national values, ethnic features, religious beliefs, informational resources, interdependency, mutual trust, and so on all contribute to a state’s “soft” power. Therefore, the ‘Soft Power’ can be named Cultural Power.

Both India and Thailand have implemented cultural diplomacy as soft power and foreign policy. Interactions in the form of common history, food, dance, religion, education, movies and sports become linking agents to forge cultural diplomacy between India and Thailand. The drives called ‘Look East Policy’ (now, Act East Policy) of India and ‘Look West Policy’ of Thailand better complemented in their approach towards adoption and assimilation.

Indigeneity of Thai -Culture with Indian roots

Religion:

Relation between India and Thailand is not of recent origin. Religious, cultural, linguistic and mythological links have existed for over two millennia. The influence of India’s culture on Thailand made it to incorporate certain elements of commonality with their own Thai culture.

The impact of Indian Brahmanism could be seen in Thailand where a different sect of Brahmans by the name Thai Brahmins exists which shares a similar code of conduct and lifestyle with Indian Brahmins. The prevalence of Brahmanism in such foreign land traces back to the period of Emperor Ashok, when the war in India, led people to migrate to Siam, Thailand and preach/practice Brahmanism there.

In the pre-modern times, the Brahmins worked as administrators in the Thai Royal Courts and today, Royal Coronation ceremonies are conducted with Brahmanical rites. Thais marry off their daughters to a Brahmin easily. Some historians believed that the Mons of Thailand are the descendants of immigrants from southern Orissa and northern Andhra Pradesh region of India.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand. However, it is believed that such religious following began from Bihar, India. Few senior monks like Sona Thera and Uttera Thera were sent by Emperor Ashok to spread the gospel of Lord Buddha in 3 century BCE to Thailand. Moreover, in a later period, the visit of excellent personalities like His Royal Highness Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn to Bodh Gaya became a trend amongst the Buddhist followers of Thailand to lead pilgrimage to the Four Holy Places of Buddhism as tourists in India every year.

Syncretism is a feature of Thailand’s religious front. Buddhism and Brahmanism is amalgamated creatively and peacefully into their society where idols of Buddha and Lord Ganesha are found in most of its Buddhist temples.

‘Buddhism Diplomacy’ is risen gradually where the Thai government-funded $100,000 and its private sectors offered $33,000 to Nalanda University establishment fund for establishing the course of Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religions.

Sanskrit in Thai literature

The Thais prefer naming their people in Indian languages like Pali and Sanskrit even today because of their polysyllabic characters which differ from their monosyllabic word. Sanskrit is still prevalent in the Royal Courts of Thailand where Brahmans have portfolios and are consulted by the Royal monarch.

The Royal Princess herself has academic records of studying Pali and Sanskrit literature. Thus, as a sign of such Indian influence the GOI, has referred to two Pali and Sanskrit experts in the 1970-80s for Thailand’s renowned universities and played a huge role in setting the Sanskrit Study Centre in one of its universities.

Moreover, a number of Sanskrit and Pali novels have been translated into Thai such as Mahabharata, Ramayana, Shakuntala, Bhagavad Gita, Vetala-panca-vimsati (Vetal in Thai), Hitopadess, etc.

Language and Culture

Surprisingly, the influence of Tamil literature over Thailand is seen due to geo-political reasons of the pre-history period when the Chola Kingdom annexed the present day Thailand’s territory through the south of India. According to K.A. Nitankanta Sastri’s “History of Srivijaya,” King Rajendra Chola I, raided the Thai peninsula in 1568 C.E. and tented his troops at present-day Phuket.  

The Thai lore of Ramakien, a local version of Ramayana, and Mahabharata as well translated into its local languages.

Loy Krathong and Songkran are two major festivals of Thailand like Diwali and Holi of India.

Here, such cultural interaction doesn’t only mean the dominance of ‘Indianness’ but South-East Asians accommodating certain Indian elements to their culture and practices.

While saying so, it is pertinent to refer to the Tai Ahoms of Assam who were the migrants of Thailand and has an enduring link with their country of origin.

Relevance of Thai script to India

Some Thai scripts such as those found in inscriptions in Nakhon Si Thammarat, were believed by Professor Georges Cedes to be the earliest scripts ever discovered in Thailand prior to King Ramkhamhaeng’s Thai scripts inventory. They looked like Indian scripts from 357 B.C. until 557 B.C. (500-1000 B.E.).Furthermore, Tamil inscriptions dating from 707 C.E. to 757 C.E. (1250-1300 B.E.) have been discovered on Narayan hill near Takuapa. Wat Semamuang in Nakhon Si Thammara also has Sanskrit inscriptions.

Although Thai scripts were modified under their different kingdoms but traces of Grantha and Pallava scripts were also traced by some historians from certain relics of ancient kingdoms.

The Socialization of Thai-Indian culture” Academic Inter-change

As mentioned earlier, India has contributed immensely to the proliferation of its cultural studies in the academics of Thailand. Provisions of Indian Professors are made available in the Thai Universities for the spread of Indian literary studies and its religio-cultural practices in knowledgeable form.

Thus, prior to the official academic cooperation, India provided a large number of academic books to several universities in Thailand like, Silpakorn University, Prince of Songkla University etc. Several MoU’s were signed by both governments for cooperation on education and human resource development.

Besides this, India has opened up short-term programs are opened in the Indian Institutes for the Thai officials in the Indian Embassies under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme (ITEC). Several scholarships are made available by the Indian Government to Thai nationals like the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Scholarship scheme, Ayush Scholarship scheme for getting to know Indian Traditional Medical System etc. Thus all such provisions have made Yoga and Ayurveda prominent health medicating strategies amongst the Thais.

Art and Architecture

Buddhism is a widely followed religion in Thailand. Therefore, Stupas are Buddhist temples which have commonality to the Sanchi Stupa architecture of India, with definite carvings on the stones and the stories behind them.

The Mural paintings are of Thai origin and are found in more than 20 locations in India like Ajanta caves, Ellora caves, Armamalai cave, etc, where Buddhist philosophy is carved in natural caves and rock-cut chambers.

Tourism as a direct Thai and Indian Interaction

The advent of globalization led both nations to understand and realize their pre-historical and cultural connectivity better. It is after it that economic exchanges engulfed with cultural touch happened between modern India and Thailand in establishing what is called in the political sense as ‘Soft power’. Global politics became easier earlier because of the transport system but now due to the internet as well.

Internet binds us together. Tourism is a sector from which the government earns the maximum revenue. Besides the visit of the high government delegation for official purposes, it is important for the locales to travel to each other’s country and such is happening on a large scale every year, either due to religious travels, marriage destinations or holidaying. It could be determined from the Ministry of Civil Aviation report of 2019, where around 162 flights travelled between India and Thailand in a week. Some Thai companies have made investments in India especially in southern and western routes like Chareon Prokphand Foods, Gikiyu Hotels Ltd. Etc. Business prospects were made in Thailand to establish ‘Little India’, in Bangkok’s Phahurat, where the major Indian business companies exist.

Indian Films in Thai Society                            

Initially, Deewanchan began importing Indian films into Thailand in 1965, and many other importers soon followed suit. To-genres of Indian films were imported- Drama and Deva. The films actually were imported in the later part of  1980-90’s in DVD’s and CD’s for the ‘Little India’,  but could not reach out to a wider local audience because of the absence of subtitles in English or Thai language, unlike today.

But till today, Indian films and ads are not successful in attracting heavy Thai audiences as mostly they are influenced by Korean and Japanese films and stories.

However, as a token of cultural cooperation, India holds every year Thai film Festival, where certain Thai films are screened in the Embassies to collect a large number of Thai nationals residing in India and for cultural interactions.

Non-Governmental efforts in strengthening Indo-Thai friendship

It is true that Non-state actors cannot establish hardcore politics like the governments do, but can definitely contribute to adding cheery on the cake, by establishing public diplomacy in a fast converging world by increased interaction amongst the public interaction and civil society groups across the world.

Indian Diaspora in Thailand strengthened the bilateral ties in between these two countries by representing India through their language, customs, dresses, festivals and through the spread of Indian literature in Thai educational Institutes. Although the Indians are a minority in Thailand, a mutual understanding amongst the local people has led to the setting of large Indian businessmen by understanding and accommodating the culture and mentality of the locales. In this way, they are also serving their country of origin by sending remittances.

Indian media is another Non-State actor playing a vital role in reporting about the Thai nationals and their status in India to their origin country as well as bringing information about the Indians in their host country Thailand and their status. In the Thailand terror attack of 2015, a few Indians died and it was widely covered by the Indian media. However, Media as Fourth Estate performs better with critical appraisals and independence if not intervened from outside.

Besides all this, regular meet of the Thai’s in India and Indians in Thailand are held conducted by different international foundations like in India the ORF, Canbis Talk etc.

Conclusion

The bi-lateral relations from a different lens of soft-power between India and Thailand are a recent phenomenon although both the country traces their roots in their culture since pre-history times. Now, the cultural exchange is expected to be more when travelling between both countries would get easier after the establishment of the Trilateral Highway from India to Thailand through Myanmar. India has tried to strengthen its ‘Act East Policy’ by emphasizing cultural exchange besides the other politico-military strategies.

Recently, Thailand has approached Haryana, an Indian state, to learn tactics of agriculture and irrigation for food sufficiency due to the food crisis it faced even after being referred to as the ‘Kitchen of the world’. Therefore, soft power caters to also assistance and mutual understanding in carving out strategies for national interests.

Anwesha Hazarika is a Ph.D. research scholar in the dept of Political Science at Cotton University. She can be reached at anweshahazarika9@gmail.com

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