By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A group of Buddhist hardliners in Thailand filed a police complaint against a young female artist on Wednesday over paintings that depict images of the Buddha as the 1960s Japanese superhero character Ultraman.
The complaint over four paintings, displayed last week at a shopping mall in northeastern Thailand, highlights how ultra-conservative Buddhist groups have been emboldened to go farther than establishment religious authorities in combating perceived threats to their faith.
Buddhism, followed by more than 90% of Thais, is one of three traditional pillars of Thai society, alongside the nation and the monarchy.
The paintings were removed from the exhibition last week and the artist - a fourth-year university student whose name has been withheld for her safety - had to publicly apologize to northeastern Nakhon Ratchasima province's chief monk in front of the provincial governor.
In the past, that might have been the end of the incident.
But on Wednesday, the hardline group Buddhist Power of the Land said it had filed a police complaint against the artist and four others involved in the exhibition, on the grounds that comparing the Buddha to an action figure was disrespectful.
The group wants the five prosecuted under a law against insulting religion that allows imprisonment of up to seven years.
"The paintings dishonored and offended Buddhists and harmed a national treasure," Buddhist Power of the Land representative Charoon Wonnakasinanone told Reuters.
The group also wants the paintings destroyed.
Under Thai law, police must investigate a complaint and recommend whether there are grounds to pursue criminal charges, a process that usually takes at least seven days.
ESTABLISHMENT VS HARDLINERS
Thailand's official Buddhist authorities oppose criminal charges against the artist.
Pongporn Pramsaneh, director of the Office of National Buddhism, told Reuters he considered the matter closed after the public apology.
"Whoever want to take legal action, we will not get involved," Pongporn said.
Few have been jailed under the law, though there have been some cases of fines, including against tourists with Buddha tattoos or souvenir statues.
The artist could not be reached for comment, and the shopping center that held the exhibition declined to comment.
The controversy has raised the profile for the paintings, which were all sold last week.
One of the buyers then auctioned his painting for charity, and it sold for 600,000 baht ($19,693).
Seller Pakorn Porncheewangkul paid only 4,500 baht for the painting last week, but he says he is giving 100,000 baht of the profits to the artist and the rest to the intensive care unit at the local hospital.
Pakorn said he didn't see anything sacrilegious about the paintings depicting Ultraman as the Buddha.
"Buddhism is heroic as it rids people of suffering, so the Buddhism in this painting will help ease the physical suffering of others (at the hospital)" he said.
Surapot Taweesak, a Buddhist scholar, said the controversy showed the reforms of Buddhism that took place under the previous military government, which aimed to clean up temples and the monkhood stalked by scandals, have failed.
On the one hand, some Thais feel the religion is less relevant to their daily lives. And at the same time, a reactionary hardline movement has arisen that sees Buddhism as under threat and in need of defense the religious establishment is not providing.
The trend also sparked a Buddhist nationalist party, Pandin Dharma Party, modeled after similar political movements in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which contested July's elections under the slogan of Buddhism under threat.
"In the Ultraman case, the law is dragged in instead of a normal debate," Surapot said. "This case reflects the insecurity felt by many monks and followers about their religion."
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Alex Richardson and Lincoln Feast.)