BANGKOK — A group of academics and experts told a Parliament committee on Monday that crackdowns on arts deemed inappropriate to Buddhism are a danger to Thailand’s creativity.
In a meeting with the House Committee of Religions, Arts and Culture, Chulalongkorn University political scientist Bundit Chanrochanakit and fellow panelists advised the government to back off from regulating artistic expression. The meeting was held in the wake of a recent order to erase a temple mural denounced by local officials as blasphemy.
“We have government agencies that act as thought police, telling us what can or cannot be done,” Bundit said. “Are we living in modern society?… If not, we will be stuck in mud and prevented from learning.”
He pointed to the pressure to remove mural figures at a temple in Uthai Thani that appears to show Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, drowning with demons who attempted to stop Lord Buddha from attaining enlightenment.
The figures were eventually painted over after local officials paid a visit and demanded the removal.
Bundit cited another case of controversy over artists’ interpretation of religious topics: the “Ultraman Buddha” painting by an art student in September. The artist was forced to apologize after hardline Buddhist officials accused her of disrespect to their religion by depicting Buddha as a Japanese superhero, Ultraman.
“You can’t have a creative economy without freedom,” Bundit told the meeting at the Ministry of Culture. “So if we deal with sacred figures, to what extent can we comment on them? Where’s the relation between arts and religions?”
Pitchaya Soomjinda, who teaches fine arts at Chiang Mai University, said the incident showed that censorship usually does not consider any context, since the “Ultraman Buddha” painting was in fact a positive contemporary on Buddhism.
“It wasn’t the art student’s fault,” Pitchaya said. “The artist saw the Buddha as a hero … “It’s not appropriate that we use state power to decide what should be removed or stopped.”
He continued, “If we go on like this, culture will become static and there won’t be anything new.”
Another panelist told the House Committee that Thailand’s tendency to ban arts and films for the slightest sign of thinking outside the box will end up harming creativity in the society.
“Arts do not have to serve religions and the state. It should be able to be interpreted whichever way we like,” Panu Boonpipattanapong, who authored books on arts, said.
Thai film censors are notorious for their intolerance of movies who try to push the envelope on political or religious matters. The censors banned several films by director Apichartpong Weerasethakul, including Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Cemetery of Splendour (2015), on the grounds of sensitive subjects.
The only speaker at the panel who differs from the advocacy for greater freedom in arts is Pairoj Pittayamatee, a fine arts lecturer at Silpakorn University.
Pairoj said traditional Thai arts have always been serving religions, and the concept of modern art is just a century old. Artists, he said, should tread carefully when they explore the topics of Buddhism and the monarchy, lest they offend a belief held dear by many Thais.
“Buddhism can be proven scientifically, and the monarchy is still around,” Pairoj said.