A group of artists trying to raise awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic have been charged with blasphemy and subjected to online vitriol from Buddhist hardliners after posting photos of their work to Facebook.
Artist Zayar Hnaung apologized online last night, saying he was a Buddhist with no intention to of insulting Buddhism with the mural in Myitkyina, Kachine state, which shows health workers trying to rescue the world from a robed representation of the disease as death.
“The entire world including the rich and poor countries are confronted by the coronavirus. As a poor country, everyone here is responsible to prevent the disease,” Zayar Hnaung told Myitkyina News Journal.
Facebook users reacted angrily to the fact that the skeletal figure’s robe is the same saffron color as that worn by Buddhist monks in Myanmar. Some went so far as to push a conspiracy theory that the main artist was a pastor from a prominent Kachin Church on a mission to attack Buddhism. They called on the authorities to arrest the artists. The mural has since been painted over.
The artist said the mural was meant to educate the public about the threat posed by the outbreak, which Myanmar says has now infected 20 and killed one. As elsewhere, the actual number is likely to be much higher.
“The lord of death is spreading coronavirus to exterminate humanity. Some countries are being consumed by the disease. In this situation, doctors, nurses, and civil societies are pulling us from the virus,” he said.
But the authorities have interpreted his street artwork in a different way and see fit to punish the artists. Myanmar Pressphoto Agency reported that the Religious Affairs Department charged with insulting religion under Article 295(a) of the Penal Code, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
Courts in the Buddhist-majority country have convicted others under the colonial-era blasphemy laws despite protests from human rights groups. In 2015, a New Zealand man and two Burmese employees were jailed for using a Buddha image in their “Buddha Bar” promotion.