Court Rejects Monk’s Lawsuit Against US Embassy over Buddha Image

By Zarni Mann 1 August 2019

MANDALAY—A court in Kamayut Township on Thursday rejected a lawsuit filed against the US ambassador and two others by a nationalist for allegedly defaming Buddhism.

Nationalist monk U Parmaukha filed the lawsuit against US Ambassador Scott Marciel, the artist who painted the picture and the person who posted the picture on the official Facebook page of the US Embassy in Yangon. The image was of a painting done for an environmentally themed art exhibit the embassy hosted in July.

The US Embassy in Yangon on Friday promoted the “Insight Out Art Exhibition” of young artists on its Facebook page with a painting that depicts a silhouette of Buddha wearing a gas mask in the foreground while factories belching smoke are seen in the background.

The description of the painting says, “Factories cause air pollution and worsen the ongoing deforestation that is threatening the health of the people and the environment. We must take responsibility for the causes of environmental pollution.”

The post featuring the painting named “Air Pollution by Factories” received hundreds of critical comments, saying the embassy defamed Buddha and Buddhism, and failed to respect the host country’s religion.

An image of this painting, ‘Air Pollution by Factories’, was taken off the US Embassy’s Facebook page after an online backlash. / US Embassy Yangon Facebook

Most of the comments said that the embassy, as well as the artist, insulted Buddhism by putting a mask on a Buddha image, which they saw as ugly and inappropriate. Some even said the embassy was guilty of creating religious unrest in the country by posting the painting on Facebook.

On Thursday, U Parmaukha filed the case at Kamayut Township. It was turned down by the court as being unfit for a lawsuit.

“I’ve showed them the screen shots of the painting, which defamed the Lord Buddha. This saddened Buddhists, so I filed the lawsuit and submitted it directly to the court. But the court rejected it and said it is inadequate grounds to file a lawsuit,” said U Parmaukha.

The monk is no stranger to the US Embassy. Last year he was sentenced to three months in prison for his leading role in a protest against the US Embassy over the Rohingya issue in April 2016.

After receiving several accusations of sacrilege over the painting, the US Embassy took down the picture of the painting the next day, with a note saying that a large number of social media followers had taken offense at the image.

“We stand for freedom of expression, and we hope that this art may have stimulated some deep thinking about the serious environmental problem the work was intended to address,” the note read.

“Our goal is also to promote friendship between the peoples of Myanmar and the United States, and we reiterate our respect for all religions and cultures,” the note added.

Any act disgracing religion is a sensitive issue in Myanmar, especially during a time of heightened nationalism in the country.

At the end of 2014, aNew Zealander and two locals from V Gastro Bar in Yangon were arrested and charged for producing a promotional flyer featuring a seated Buddha wearing headphones against a colorful, psychedelic backdrop along with advertising for 15,000-kyat (US$15) “Bottomless Frozen Mararita [sic]” cocktails. They were sentenced to two and half years in prison.

In the same year, a Spanish tourist was deported for having a Buddha image tattooed on his calf. A visitor from Canada was also kicked out for the same reason. In 2016, a Dutch tourist faced jail time for violating visa regulations and insulting religion after he disrupted a Buddhist ritual in Mandalay.

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