A-lua – Thai sweets made in forms of Buddhist amulets – are seen in Thai dessert shop Madame Choops. They became a phenomenal success, but production was halted after the National Buddhism Office “asked the store to cooperate” to choose another design.
The owner of Thai dessert shop Madame Choops recently got into hot water with the religious authorities when she made her A-lua, a classic Thai dessert in various forms of Buddha amulets.
When photos of her candy went viral online, a group of officials from the National Buddhism Office rushed to her shop in Samut Songkhram province to give her a disguise.
His idea of dessert was offensive, he was told. Devotees cannot stand the idea of people eating and chewing the sacred symbol of the Buddha, so it should immediately put an end to such sacrilege.
There is no law prohibiting people from using designs of amulets for commercial products. The National Buddhist Office (ONB) also does not have the legal authority to arrest him. So the officials only “asked” for his cooperation.
Internet users were divided over the A-lua controversy. Some believed that the religious authorities had overreacted. Others agreed that art should not be an excuse to trivialize religious beliefs.
Dessert maker A-lua was not the first to be convicted of violating traditions and religious holiness. Remember the Ultraman Buddha picture painting? Or a Thai tourist advertisement showing the demon king Tosakan of the making of the Ramayana epic khanom khrok snacks to promote street food?
And the latest case of the House of Representatives Committee on Education, Religion, Arts and Culture inviting two monks whose live broadcast drew over 200,000 views, asking them to be less funny and more “religious”.
These controversies had the same end. These creatives have apologized and revised their work “as recommended” to appease the fury of the traditionalists.
The state’s monopoly on cultural and religious matters not only results in the disengagement of people from religious and cultural participation, but also the loss of new economic opportunities.
This amulet controversy occurred around the same time as when the Himaphan Marshmallow hashtag on temple carvings of mythological creatures went viral online. These sculptures of mythological animals were created by folk artists to decorate rural temples in northern and northeastern Thailand.
They became popular because people thought their minimalist designs were cute. To promote appreciation for folk art, an artist / sculptor made products of mythological creatures for sale with permission from the abbots. Part of the sales returns to support the temples.
Unlike A-lua amulet desserts, the use of mythical animal carvings in temples for commercial purposes did not spark the same anger on the part of traditionalists.
While we cannot strictly compare these two incidents since mythological animals are not objects of worship, they both involve the use of religious art for commercial purposes.
Today’s society no longer shares the same views on religion and culture. Different parties, whether state agencies, business operators, traditionalists or the general public, have their own ideas of what they consider acceptable.
From a market point of view, goods and services are a matter of creativity and freedom of expression. In a capitalist, consumer-oriented society powered by modern communication technologies, the commercial use of culture 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 films, TV series, cartoons, food and other cultural products. Their tourism industries benefit tremendously from their understanding of the power of culture.
From a market 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 the power of the state.
Governments or state agencies often “choose” to support a particular belief or tradition over others. The current constitution, for example, gives special support to Theravada Buddhism. The National Buddhist Office is a government agency that helps the clergy. The country’s other religions do not enjoy similar political support.
Support involves protection and – most often – censorship. As a result, people are prohibited from freely using mainstream religious or cultural content for their artistic expression or for commercial purposes. This was the case with the A-lua amulet desserts.
Marginal culture, on the other hand, is allowed to operate through market mechanisms without state intervention. This is what happened with the folk sculptures of Himaphan creatures.
For the general public, everyone’s reactions are shaped by different life experiences. Those who have seen candy made in the form of Buddha images in other countries may think of the A-lua controversy as a storm in a teacup. But those who hold 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 issues. Whether or not this leads to violence depends on many factors. Tolerance and cultural sensitivity play a key role in preventing violence. The government should therefore make a concerted effort to instill tolerance and cultural sensitivity in society.
Cultural sensitivity is now widely recognized as an important value in the business world. Many consulting companies specialize specifically in cultural sensitivity. These consulting firms offer a systematic assessment of clients’ services and products to avoid any risk of cultural insensitivity.
The services cover a wide range of entertainment industry products such as movies, novels, songs, and even board games. Although their content is original and not based on reality, precautions are still necessary to avoid offending customers without knowing it, especially 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 strengthening the political links between culture and the national economy.
With tourism being a major contributor to the economy, intellectual property law, for example, should ensure that residents and communities benefit equitably when their cultural property is used for tourism money.
Most of the independent artists working in industry are also in the informal sector. They should benefit from better social protection for their cultural contribution. Meanwhile, the government is expected to further expand universal social benefits, as people will have the resources to be creative when they have life security.
Creative works benefit the economy. But they don’t come out of nowhere. They cannot grow in a fossilized culture. Artistic interpretations of culture have taken place over time, including from religious and sacrosanct artifacts. The cultural police can interrupt but they 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 points of view.
Instead of punishing differences, the government’s cultural policy should advocate the integration of culture and 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 for tolerance. Cultural openness is good for the economy and for peace. For the country to enjoy peace and creativity, cultural policing and censorship must end.