Thai hardliners demand 'Ultraman' Buddha art be destroyed

BANGKOK - Hardline Buddhists in Thailand called on Thursday (Sept 12) for the destruction of paintings depicting Buddha as Japanese superhero Ultraman, provoking fevered debate about using sacred imagery in art.

The majority of Thais are Buddhist and a law on insulting religion carries a maximum sentence of seven years in jail even if prosecutions are rare.

The student artwork went viral on social media last week after it was shown in an exhibition three hours outside Bangkok.

The artist, whose name has been withheld by her university over safety concerns, offered a tearful apology to monks for the four paintings, some of which had a backdrop with Louis Vuitton logos.

But fringe group Buddhist Power of the Land filed a police complaint against her and four supporters for "hurting Buddha's feelings".

"It's up to the court but we want (the paintings) to be destroyed," representative Jaroon Wannakasin told Agence France-Presse on Thursday.

During her apology the student said she meant to portray Buddha as a hero who protects the world like Ultraman, and that the Louis Vuitton logos represented worldly "temptations".

PHOTO: Reuters

As the scandal hit headlines and talk shows, a collector swooped in to buy one of the controversial works showing six Buddhas as the fictional character shooting lasers from their palms for 4,500 baht (S$202).

The artwork quickly soared in price during a bidding war on Facebook and Pakorn Porncheewangkul resold it Thursday for 600,000 baht.

"This picture brings controversy. I thought I should resell it and donate the money to benefit society," he told AFP, explaining that 90 per cent of the proceeds will go to a local hospital.

The remaining amount will go to the student in a gesture of support.

"Otherwise no one will dare to create new art."

Buddhist nationalism in Thailand is not as politically powerful as it is in neighbouring Myanmar but a prominent case in 2017 saw a firebrand Thai monk detained for suggesting mosques be burned down.

It is not the first time that imagery and art has stirred controversy in Thailand.

Last year, the governor of Thailand's second-largest city Chiang Mai sued a local magazine for posting a "blasphemous" painting depicting ancient kings wearing pollution masks.

It was meant to urge the authorities to tackle a crisis that has turned the city into one of the most polluted in the world.