The owner of Thai dessert shop Madame Choops recently got herself in hot water with religious authorities when she made her A-lua – a classic Thai dessert in various Buddha amulet shapes.
When the photos of her sweets went viral online, a group of officials from the National Office of Buddhism rushed to her shop in Samut Songkhram province to give her a dressing down.
Her dessert idea was offensive, she was told. The faithful cannot stomach the idea of people eating and chewing the sacred symbol of the Buddha, so she should immediately stop such sacrilege.
There is no law prohibiting people from using amulet designs for commercial products. The National Office of Buddhism (NOB) does not have the legal authority to stop her either. So the officials only “asked” for her cooperation.
Netizens were divided on the A-lua controversy. Some thought the religious authorities overreacted. Others agreed that art should not be an excuse for trivialising religious beliefs.
The A-lua dessert maker was not the first to be condemned for violating traditions and religious sanctity. Remember the Ultraman Buddha image painting? Or a Thai tourism ad showing the Demon King Tosakan of the Ramayana Epic making khanom khrok snacks to promote street food?
And the latest case of the Committee on Education, Religion, Arts and Culture of the House of Representatives inviting two monks whose live streaming drew over 200,000 views, asking them to be less funny and more “religious”.
These controversies had the same ending. Those creativists issued an apology and revised their work “as recommended” to placate the traditionalists’ fury.
The state monopoly on cultural and religious matters results in not only disengaging people from religious and culture participation, but also losing new economic opportunities.
This amulet controversy occurred around the same period as when the Himaphan Marshmallow hashtag about temple sculptures of mythological creatures went viral online. These sculptures of mythological animals were created by folk artists to decorate rural temples in the North and Northeast of Thailand.
They became popular because netizens thought their minimalist designs were cute. To promote folk art appreciation, an artist/sculptor made mythological creature products for sale with the permission of abbots. A portion of the sales goes back to support the temples.
Unlike the A-lua amulet desserts, the use of mythical animal sculptures in temples for commercial use did not trigger the same anger from traditionalists.
Although we cannot strictly compare these two incidents since the mythological animals are not items of worship, they both involve the use of religious art for commercial use.
Society nowadays no longer shares the same views on religion and culture. Different parties, be they state agencies, business operators, traditionalists, or the general public, have their own ideas about what they consider acceptable.
From the market’s standpoint, goods and services are about creativity and freedom of expression. In a capitalistic and consumerdriven society propelled by modern communications technology, using culture commercially is also a creative way to strengthen the national economy.
Look at Japan and South Korea. Both countries have successfully strengthened their economies by promoting their cultures globally through movies, TV series, cartoons, foods and other cultural products. Their tourism industries hugely benefit from their understanding of the power of culture.
From the market’s perspective, whether the products are “appropriate” or not will be judged by consumers. If consumers do not buy these products, they will soon disappear from the market.
But religion and culture often involve state power.
Governments or state agencies often “choose” to support a particular creed or tradition over others. The current constitution, for example, grants special support to Theravada Buddhism. The National Office of Buddhism is a state agency to support the clergy. Other religions in the country do not have similar policy support.
Support entails protection and – more often than not – censorship. As a result, people are barred from freely using mainstream religious or cultural content for their artistic expression or commercial purposes. This was the case with the A-lua amulet desserts.
Culture on the fringes, meanwhile, is allowed to operate under market mechanisms without state intervention. This is what happened with the folk sculptures of the Himaphan creatures.
For the general public, each person’s reactions are shaped by different life experiences. Those who have seen sweets made in the shape of Buddha images in other countries may think the A-lua controversy is a storm in a teacup. But those who hold the Buddha amulets as a sacred symbol of their religious belief may feel offended.
It is common for people to have different views on religious and cultural matters. Whether it leads to violence or not depends on many factors. Tolerance and cultural sensitivity play a key role in preventing violence. The government should, therefore, make a concerted effort to inculcate tolerance and cultural sensitivity in society.
Cultural sensitivity is now widely recognised as an important value in the business world. Many consulting companies specialise in cultural sensitivity specifically. These consulting firms offer systematic evaluation of clients’ services and products to avoid any risk of being culturally insensitive.
The services cover a wide range of products in the entertainment industry such as films, novels, songs and even board games. Although their content is original and not based on reality, precautions are still necessary to avoid unknowingly offending customers, particularly when the products are marketed in other cultures.
The government’s cultural and religious policies should follow this global trend to foster a creative economy by strengthen policy linkages between culture and the national economy.
Since tourism is a major contributor to the economy, the intellectual property law, for example, should ensure that residents and communities benefit fairly when their cultural assets are being used for tourism money.
Most independent artists serving the industry are also in the informal sector. They should receive better welfare protection for their cultural contribution. Meanwhile, the government should further expand universal welfare benefits because people will have the resources to be creative when they have life security.
Creative works benefit the economy. But they do not come out of thin air. They cannot grow in a fossilised culture. Artistic interpretations of culture have been taking place over time including from religious and sacrosanct artefacts. Cultural policing might interrupt but it cannot stop this process.
Instead of imposing censorship, the government should be open to new cultural and artistic interpretations and foster mutual learning from different views.
Instead of punishing differences, the government’s cultural policy should advocate integration of culture and the economy to foster an open and inclusive environment to enable creativity.
A policy of cultural openness is not only fertile ground for creativity but also tolerance. Cultural openness is good for the economy, and peace. For the country to enjoy peace and creativity, cultural policing and censorship must stop.
Article by Siranan Dechakupt, a researcher at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI)
First Published: Bangkok Post on 22 Sep 2021
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