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Heritage Protection: The Asian Experience

Cultural heritage is central to our work at Ock Pop Tok so we were honoured when Veo was invited to participate in the conference “Heritage Protection: The Asian Experience” held by the Siam Society’s regional office in Bangkok Thailand January 25-26, 2019.

The conference brought attention to the importance of safeguarding the heritage of ethnic minorities, and creating opportunities for communities to revitalise their cultural practices to adapt to modern life.

Over 200 researchers, entrepreneurs, government officials, and students, attended the conference to discuss and debate issues around tangible and intangible cultural heritage preservation in a modern world. Experts from 12 countries in the region contributed to the discussion; China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia, South Korea, Laos, Philippines, Cambodia and India.

The conference was divided into four sub-themes:

  • Heritage is the living present of the past. This panel served as the introduction for the conference discussing the general topics related to cultural heritage protection across Asia. The panellists investigated the following questions: What does cultural heritage mean to Asian people? Can one make general statements about cultural heritage across Asia or can one only look at regional or country-specific heritage? Do European and Asian concepts of cultural heritage diverge due to their different historical experiences, socio-cultural milieus, and cultural values? If so, how can heritage protection in Asian countries be best pushed forward in a way consistent with Asian views of culture and cultural heritage? And should internationally accepted best practices be modified to better suit Asian countries’ needs and circumstances?
  • People taking ownership of heritage. Cultural heritage is often used and abused, promoted and destroyed, by governments to suit their own agendas, and cultural heritage protection policies in Asia are often defined top- down by national governments neglecting community ownership of cultural heritage. During this session presenters discussed how ownership of heritage can be claimed by people and communities, whether at local, ethnic, or national level within the Asian political-economic and social context? What are the respective roles of government and grassroots communities in protecting heritage? How can education, formal and informal, promote heritage protection at the grassroots level?
  • How to put law to work on behalf of heritage protection? During this session participants looked at the role of law in cultural heritage protection analysing questions such as: Is a legal framework essential for cultural heritage protection? If yes, what are the conditions for success in using the law to protect cultural heritage in Asia? What successful examples exist in Asia for an effective legal framework for cultural heritage protection law? If no effective legal framework is in place, how can heritage protection work? What lessons can be drawn for Asian countries based on this analysis?
  • How can entrepreneurial energies complement heritage protection? This final session investigated the role of entrepreneurism in cultural heritage protection and this is where Veo spoke about Ock Pop Tok. The goal of the session was to investigate this role based on the following criteria: When cultural heritage protection complements and supplements economic development to improve people’s lives, it is more likely to be embraced at grassroots and national levels. How then can entrepreneurship, ranging from large corporations to micro enterprises, be harnessed to further cultural heritage protection? What are the benefits and what are the risks of entrepreneurs playing a major role in cultural heritage protection? How can governments facilitate this role?
ock pop tok laos blog 02 heritage protection presentation veo - Heritage Protection

After introducing Ock Pop Tok and giving a brief history of the organisation, Veo spoke about how we view the role of using cultural heritage as a means of economic development in local communities. For OPT this role means that as we collaborate with communities in our Village Weaver Projects to develop the local handicrafts sector. One of the keys to our work is that we pay special attention to maintain the authenticity of the craft and the traditional techniques thus stimulation the economy with our compromising the integrity of the culture. One of the most beautiful parts about Lao textiles is the fact that they are so diverse, with unique styles from all 50 different recognized ethnic groups. As we leverage these traditions to create economic opportunities for communities, we also want to respect them and maintain the values that make them unique to each culture. These diverse crafts also provide the platform for educating visitors about the cultural heritage of each of these unique groups, which in turn contributes to protection.

Cultural tourism is both a risk and a benefit for cultural heritage preservation, as the commercialisation of traditional cultural practices can dilute its relevant place in society.

One of the central points of the OPT mission it to facilitate creative and educational collaboration in Laos and worldwide. Education contributes to protection through raising awareness about different cultures. We accomplish this part of our mission through participating in conferences, exchanges with communities, and our Living Crafts Centre. We offer free tours so that visitors can learn the background, and techniques of Lao weaving and the culture behind the craft. This is an important factor in contributing to sustaining cultural heritage through our entrepreneurial work. We give visitors an inside view of how traditional weavings are created as well as the cultural beliefs and practices involved in Lao textiles, which in turn helps them to appreciate these traditions.

ock pop tok laos blog 03 santa fee traditional group - Heritage Protection

We also facilitate the exchanges for OPT weavers by giving them opportunities to travel and share their culture and traditions with others around the world. These opportunities and experiences demonstrate that their unique cultural heritage has a valued place in the modern world, which encourages them to sustain these traditions. Also through creating economic opportunities and empowerment through textile traditions, we are able to prove that cultural survival can support family members and their communities.

Tourism is also a driving force behind sustaining cultural heritage in Laos because it provides ways for people to earn an income from their traditions. This in turn has created a renewed effort for preserving and continuing many cultural traditions.

Cultural tourism is both a risk and a benefit for cultural heritage preservation, as the commercialisation of traditional cultural practices can dilute its relevant place in society. One of the primary risks of involving entrepreneurial energy and tourism in cultural heritage preservation is it often leads to change. Change is not always welcome in cultural heritage preservation, however it can be necessary to help keep culture alive. We believe that culture is dynamic and evolving and as traditions naturally represent culture they also naturally change and evolve.

In order to protect and sustain cultural heritage in the future, it is important to involve youth and make preservation attractive to new generations.

It is important to note that evolution of culture is not inherently bad and placing a value on authenticity can mitigate this risk. Change and evolution are natural phenomena and are generally more authentic when they are initiated from within the community and the culture rather than being forced by outside influences. Placing a high value on cultural heritage and its preservation is part of the success of Ock Pop Tok. As a socially motivated entrepreneurial entity we want to communicate with our market and increase the appreciation and value for traditional heritage culture. By telling the story of authentic traditional Lao textiles we add value to the textile and thus can continue using traditional methods such as natural materials and dyes even though they are more costly. This, in turn, helps to sustain these traditions.

Another risk that entrepreneurism represents for cultural heritage protection; is the ability to purchase culture. This risk can also be an advantage depending on how the entrepreneur acts. For example we saw that many people were selling their vintage textiles to tourists because they needed the money. However at the same time as these pieces were taken out of Laos to homes around the world, people had stopped making these traditional pieces. We didn’t want to see – Heritage Collection

ock pop tok laos blog 04 phonsouk weaver portrait - Heritage Protection

In order to protect and sustain cultural heritage in the future, it is important to involve youth and make preservation attractive to new generations. We do this by making weaving an enticing good career choice for young people. We offer weavers a good steady income, and excellent benefits such as health insurance and profit sharing. We also give them the opportunity to travel as cultural ambassadors where they are a part of larger purpose and an international community of culture bearers and international artisans.

One last factor that entrepreneurs should consider when contributing to cultural heritage protection is the importance of collaborating with local government and other organizations. In the case of Lao government has helped contribute to cultural heritage preservation through policies. For example all signage in the historical district of Luang Prabang must be printed in Lao and English to help maintain the value of the local language. Also, women are required to wear sihns (the traditional Lao skirt) to official meetings to help preserve the traditions in modern times.

ock pop tok laos blog 06 katu women textiles - Heritage Protection

Entrepreneurial energy plays a key role in the protection of cultural heritage. It can serve as a pivotal force behind protecting and sustaining traditions, but there are several risks involved in this role. By committing ourselves to staying authentic, representing true Lao culture and providing people a means to earn an income from their cultural heritage without commercializing it, we embrace this position. We hope to see Lao culture evolve to stay relevant in modern times, and engage the youth to carry these traditions into the next generation.

A book will be published with the all of the papers and results from conference later in 2019. You can learn more about The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage and their important work by visiting their website.

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