Rage Swirls around Asia’s First Buddha Bar

JAKARTA ~ It wants to set new standards in chic for the sons and daughters of Indonesia’s elite, but instead Asia’s first Buddha Bar has become embroiled in an ugly row over religion and alleged corruption.

The plush lounge bar and restaurant featuring a huge statue of Bhuddha is fighting calls for its closure less than three months since its grand opening in a renovated Dutch colonial-era building in central Jakarta.

The bar is the scene of almost weekly protests from enraged Buddhists as it struggles, in the words of the Paris-based chain’s website, to “conquer the hearts” of the “local beautiful people.”

Lawyers for the Buddhists’ Anti-Buddha Bar Forum have filed a police complaint alleging the business is insulting their religion, one of the five constitutionally recognized faiths in the mainly Muslim country.

“For us, Buddha is our revered teacher. But for them, Buddha is a decoration and the worst thing is the statues are in such an indecent place,” protest coordinator Eko Nugroho said, as Buddhists symbolically “sealed” the bar closed during a demonstration in February.

The bar is decorated like a shrine to exoticism. Buddha images peer from almost every wall and the five-meter statue of a golden sitting Buddha – something usually only seen in sacred temples in this part of the world – gazes over the main dining area.

“This franchise could never open in Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand. Its opening in Jakarta is really an insensitive decision,” Nugroho said, blaming the government for approving the business license.

Having aggravated the country’s Buddhist minority, the bar is also caught up calls from anti-corruption activists for a probe into alleged conflicts of interest and abuse of power.

Suspicions are swirling around millions of dollars in public money that was spent renovating the old immigration building before it was offered by the city council for commercial lease.

The bar is co-owned by the wealthy daughters of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and the ex-governor of Jakarta, Sutiyoso, who reportedly ordered the renovations.

“There could be a conflict of interest. Officials need to investigate whether their permits and documents are in line with procedure,” Indonesian Corruption Watch coordinator Agus Sunaryanto said.

“The Jakarta administration allocated Rp30 billion (US$2.52 million) to Rp1 billion but the administration decided to allocate more.”

The daughters and the bar’s managers have refused to comment, but French entrepreneur Raymond Visan, whose George V Eatertainment group is the Buddha Bar’s parent company, says the Jakarta franchise has done nothing wrong.

The bar is being caught up in local politics ahead of elections in April and July, he said.

“It’s linked to the elections and the interests of certain people because, as you know, the (owners) are the daughters of Megawati and the former governor of Jakarta,” he told Agence France-Presse from Paris.

As for the Buddhists, he said they needed to, well, chill out.

“We have no intention of changing the name or removing the statues. It’s common to find Buddhas in restaurants – they bring good luck,” he said, adding he was ready to travel to Jakarta to meet the Buddhists.

Sunardjo Sumargono, a lawyer for the Anti-Buddha Bar Forum, said it wasn’t just the Buddhist minority that was angry but people from other religions as well, with Muslims starting to join the protests out of solidarity.

“What’s next? A Mohammad Bar, a Jesus Bar?” he asked. “Please don’t use religion like this; it’s a very sensitive issue.”

The first Buddha Bar appeared in Paris in the mid-1990s. Indonesia is the fourth mainly Muslim country to get one, after Egypt, Lebanon and Dubai. So far none has been established in a Buddhist-majority country.

Visan said plans were afoot to open a Buddha Bar in Beijing, and the company has “projects” in Singapore, where the authorities had approved the brand name, as well as Hong Kong and Japan.

He denied rumors that the authorities in Buddhist Thailand had refused permission for the opening of a Buddha Bar in Bangkok, saying no such request had been made.

“We sell some discs there,” he added, referring to the Buddha Bar series of exotic music CDs, the 11th of which came out earlier this month. The company is also branching out into expensive spa treatments, dubbed Buddhattitude.

Muslims make up roughly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 234-million population, but the constitution also recognizes the country’s Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian minorities.

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