The scene was photographed and made the rounds on social media. Suparat Chaijungreed, a young woman dressed in the white blouse and black skirt of the Rajabhat University female student uniform, stands with a tray of offerings in her hand. Her face has been blurred, but she is, it seems, in tears. She is flanked by an assembly of stiff-looking men: the governor of the province of Nakhon Ratchasima, in northeast Thailand, the vice-rector of the university and other officials. They accompany her as she apologizes to the chief Buddhist monk of the province.
His crime? Having made three paintings depicting the Buddha with the body of Ultraman, a Japanese superhero believed to protect the world from evil, who enjoyed worldwide popularity between the late 1960s and 1980s on television and in video games.
Un Buddha in the lotus position facing the Louis Vuitton logo
At the beginning of September, the works are exhibited in a shopping center in Nakhon Ratchasima, the provincial capital also known as Korat. Quickly, Thai citizens offended by these representations Buddha's unorthodox post photos and reviews on Facebook and Twitter. A mysterious group calling itself Chao Phut Phalang Phaendin (literally "Buddhists who have the power of the nation") takes over by declaring that these paintings "represent an insult to the national heritage and feelings of Buddhists" and risk throwing " a negative light on religion" among the millions of foreign tourists who visit the country every year.
The student simply states that she wanted to "represent the Buddha as a hero like Ultraman, who can resist the temptations around him and also protect human beings from the devil in order to keep the world at peace." One of the paintings describes the Buddha in the lotus position in front of a wall covered with the logo and monogram of the Louis Vuitton brand. “They are meant to represent material temptations,” she adds.
Secret codes and conspiracy against Buddhism
Chalermchai Kositpipat, a painter-sculptor honored with the official title of "national artist" and known among other things for the construction of a Buddhist temple all in white materials in the city of Chiang Rai (north), defends his young colleague emphasizing his courageous spirit of creativity. "She did not put the head of the Buddha on the body of a villain like Satan, on the contrary, she put it on an eminently virtuous character like Ultraman", he declares. It's ridiculous to see it as an insult to Buddhism. And forcing her to apologize will jeopardize the creativity of young people (…) From now on, they will be content to stay in the boxes and repeat the same interpretations of the Buddha. Other personalities such as a famous lawyer and the abbot of a popular temple in the Bangkok region also lend their support.
The debate even takes a political turn. Pareena Kraikupt, a member of the majority party (an offshoot of the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 2014 and 2019) known for her extreme nationalist positions, describes the paintings as "sacrilege".
The student wanted to “represent the Buddha as a hero like Ultraman, who can resist the temptations around him and also protect human beings from the devil in order to keep the world at peace. »
Chao Phut Phalang Phaendin group files a lawsuit for violation of an insult and defamation of religion law against Suparat, his teacher, mall manager, Chalermchai and lawyer. The defendants risk up to seven years in prison and a fine. The risk is very real, because in Thailand, we do not trifle with Buddhism. If freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution, this religion practiced by 95% of the population nevertheless constitutes with the monarchy and the nation one of the three pillars of the national identity of the country.
The complaint will be withdrawn a few days later for four of the five defendants. The group of Buddhist radicals claims to continue its fight because, it believes to know, the “paintings conceal secret codes” and behind this affair hides “a vast network of ill-intentioned people who conspire for the destruction of Buddhism”!
The defenders of Suparat, there are many of them, also put this affair into perspective, which according to them is only an interpretation of creative freedom, in relation to abuses and abuses - marketing, sex scandals, drug addiction... - much more serious who regularly tarnish the reputation of Thai Buddhism.
Ironically, two of the paintings bought respectively for 4 baht (500 euros) and 135 baht (6500 euros) by a private collector were sold at auction for the extraordinary amounts of 200 (600 euros) and two million (000 euros) baht! The collector who refused as demanded by the Buddhist radicals to destroy the paintings, promised to donate 18% of the sale to charities and the balance to the artist "in order to finance his education".
As an editorialist of the daily concludes Bangkok Post, “the student who has been unfairly labeled a bad Buddhist has been given the opportunity to become a major donor with the money from this fiasco that will benefit the less privileged. We are at the very heart of the concept of merit, something that the religious extremists had probably never considered”!