BANGKOK – Thai Buddhist hard-liners have filed a police complaint against a young female artist over paintings that depict Buddha as the 1960s Japanese superhero Ultraman.
The complaint over four paintings, displayed last week at a shopping mall in northeastern Thailand, highlights the emboldenment of ultraconservative Buddhist groups that seek to go further than establishment religious authorities in combating perceived threats to their faith.
Buddhism, followed by more than 90 percent of Thais, is one of three traditional pillars of Thai society, alongside the nation and the monarchy.
The painting was removed from the exhibition last week and the artist — a fourth-year university student whose name has been withheld for her safety — had to publicly apologize to the chief monk of northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province in front of the provincial governor.
In the past, that might have been the end of the incident.
But on Wednesday, the hard-line group Buddhist Power of the Land said it had filed a police complaint against the artist and four others involved in the exhibition, on the grounds that comparing Buddha to an action figure was disrespectful.
The group wants the five to be prosecuted under a law against insulting religion that allows imprisonment of up to seven years.
“The paintings dishonored and offended Buddhists and harmed a national treasure,” said Buddhist Power of the Land representative Charoon Wonnakasinanone.
The group also wants the paintings destroyed.
Under Thai law, police must investigate a complaint and recommend whether there are grounds to pursue criminal charges, a process that usually takes at least seven days.
Thailand’s official Buddhist authorities oppose criminal charges against the artist.
Pongporn Pramsaneh, director of the Office of National Buddhism, said he considered the matter closed after the public apology. “Whoever want to take legal action, we will not get involved,” Pongporn said.
Few have been jailed under the law, though there have been some cases of fines, including against tourists with Buddha tattoos or souvenir statues.
The artist could not be reached for comment, and the shopping center that held the exhibition declined to comment.
The paintings were all sold last week, and one of the buyers has decided to auction it for charity. Bids had reached 500,000 baht ($85,000) as of Wednesday, with the proceeds due to be donated to a hospital.
“The paintings have shown the differences in this country between conservative and progressive Buddhists who based their belief on Buddhist teachings rather than attachment to objects or rituals,” said Pakorn Porncheewangkul, the owner of the painting being auctioned.
Surapot Taweesak, a Buddhist scholar, said the controversy showed that the reforms of Buddhism that took place under the previous military government, which aimed to clean up temples following scandals, have failed.
On the one hand, some Thais feel that the religion is less relevant to their daily lives. And at the same time, a reactionary hard-line movement has arisen that sees Buddhism as under threat and in need of defense that the religious establishment is not providing.
The trend also sparked a Buddhist nationalist party, Pandin Dharma Party, modeled after similar political movements in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which contested July’s elections under the slogan of “Buddhism under threat.”
“In the Ultraman case, the law is dragged in instead of a normal debate,” Surapot said. “This case reflects the insecurity felt by many monks and followers about their religion.”