Professor warns Vietnam about the downside to UNESCO recognition

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Two men from the Ma ethnic group of Vietnam's Central Highlands play gongs at a group ceremony.

Attempts to earn recognition from UNESCO are diminishing the essence of several Vietnamese cultural traits, a Danish professor said at a conference in Hanoi Monday.

Oscar Salemink from the University of Copenhagen said UNESCO recognition causes communities to lose their exclusive roles in cultural practices and paves the way for businesses and political groups to co-opt them in ways which render them obsolete.

The prestige bestowed by the title turns culture characteristics into relics, causing them to no longer be dynamic, active aspects to community living, he said at the opening of a three-day Vietnam Studies conference.

He said since UNESCO named the ancient capital of Hue a World Heritage Site in 1993, Vietnam has made various efforts to win the title for many other elements of its traditional culture, including many kinds of northern folklore singing such as quan ho, ca tru and xoan

Salemink called the trend "dangerous," arguing whatever prestige the UNESCO titles may bestow are outweighed by negative impacts.

He said the title turns a piece of local culture into a national asset and local communities are ripped off in the process.

For instance, after the Central Highlands' gong music was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, many tourism companies added it to their itineraries.

But originally, the music was played only at traditional ceremonies held by ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, Salemink said.

He said UNESCO-labeled cultural traits are also threatened by globalization in general, as people from outside the once insulated communities begin imitating the practices, diluting and trivializing them.

The professor said Vietnamese authorities need to understand that UNESCO recognition can cause unintended effects by exposing culture to outside influence and intervention.

A local cultural researcher backed up the Danish professor's assertions, speaking to Thanh Nien under the condition of anonymity on the sidelines of the conference that a certain community tends to thing that it's no longer their roles to preserve a culture once it wins UNESCO title.

"Many people have asked to be paid to attend festivals that it was previously their honor to take part in," the expert said.

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