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21 Sep 2019 6:28
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  •   Home > News > International

    Buddha depicted as action figure Ultraman prompts calls in Thailand to jail student artist

    An ultra-conservative group in Thailand calls for an artist to be prosecuted under a law that carries a prison sentence of up to seven years for depicting Buddha as a popular action figure.

    A controversial painting depicting Buddha as the 1960s Japanese superhero character Ultraman has sparked outrage among Thailand's ultra-conservative Buddhist community, prompting a hard-line group to call on police to prosecute the artist for insulting religion.

    The four pieces of art painted by a fourth-year student from Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University (NRRU) were displayed last week at a shopping mall in Thailand's north east.

    The exhibition sparked an angry outcry from Thailand's majority Buddhist population, which led to the removal of the artwork and an apology from the young female artist.

    But the country's minority ultra-conservative group Buddhist Power of the Land was not satisfied and has now filed a complaint with police on the grounds the artwork, comparing Buddha to an action figure, was disrespectful.

    The group want police to prosecute the artist and four others involved in the exhibition under section 206, a law against insulting religion, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

    The reaction shows the lengths the hardliners are willing go beyond the view of the establishment in combating the perceived threats to their faith.

    Buddhism is one of the traditional pillars of Thai society and underpins many aspects of life, but some Thais feel religion is less relevant to their daily lives and the younger generation is increasingly open to the idea of secularism.

    "The policy of this country has been adoring Buddhism as one of the pillars of the country, this made the majority of the people become extreme Buddhists, but nowadays the young people think differently," religion academic Dr Sinchai Chaojaroenrat said.

    "They are open to the age of reason and the idea of secularism, including secular state, these people dare to rethink Buddhism and the necessity of religion", he said.

    Dr Sinchai said he was unsurprised by the reaction of the ultra-conservatives and believed the group was using the student to send a warning to others wishing to express their opinions through art.

    "The movement of the irreligionist is growing very fast but quietly among the young generation of Thailand," he said.

    But he said he did not believe the student and the four exhibit organisers could be charged under section 206 because the artist did not physically disgrace Buddha with graffiti.

    "This lady was just sharing her personal interpretation of Buddha; she interprets Buddha as a superhero who protects the virtue or goodness of the world and for her that's Ultraman", he said.

    The changing attitudes are becoming ever apparent.

    It even led to the creation of a new political party, Pandin Dharma, which contested the March 24 poll under the slogan "Buddism under threat", promising a return to traditional values.

    "The party emerged to fight for Thai conservatives, saying they will protect the Buddhist king and the country from Islam — they hate secularism," Dr Sinchai said.

    "Thailand has been entrapped in the deep conflict about monarchy and religion, conservatives like to hold onto both, but liberals want to neutralise both."

    Ultraman is a fictional superhero, the first major 'tokusatsu' (live action television drama) character launched in the Ultra Series by Japanese special effects studio Tsuburaya Productions, in 1966.

    The character has continued until present day through numerous relaunches on TV and movie theatres, in animation and live action, becoming one of Asia's most popular and profitable franchises.

    All the paintings were sold last week and one of the buyers, art collector Pakorn Porncheewangkul, auctioned off his piece online for 600,000 baht ($28,750) on Thursday.

    He told the ABC he was disappointed with the hardliners' attempting to suppress freedom of expression and he would donate the proceeds to a Buddhist hospital.

    "I think the kids should be able to freely express their minds through painting," he said.

    "I am very upset about the position of the protest group and this really is a silly act against our children, and we cannot suppress their thoughts."

    The ABC attempted to contact NRRU and the student involved but neither could be reached.


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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