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Buddha bar and divine diplomacy

An angry UN, a sulking EU and now a furious Buddha; Sri Lankan diplomats have their plates full and cups overflowing these days.

world Updated: Jul 07, 2010 00:49 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times

An angry UN, a sulking EU and now a furious Buddha; Sri Lankan diplomats have their plates full and cups overflowing these days.

For one year they were fighting international pressure on human rights issues related to the end of the civil war in 2009. But finally, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon went ahead and set up a three-member panel to advise him on the allegations.

Then the EU in spite of all diplomatic efforts suspended trade concessions – to the tune of millions of US dollars and again on rights issues -- that Sri Lanka was receiving in exports since the tsunami struck in December, 2004.

Now, another sensitive issue’s been raked up for them to handle. Recently, Colombo noticed – and I’m sure lack of illumination wasn’t a factor -- that Buddha and Buddhism were being insulted inside the dimly lit interiors of a chain of international bars and restaurants called Buddha Bar. Here, patrons are expected to relax and transcend the mundane – find themselves in spiritual space etc -- over colourful cocktails and that flexible genre of music called lounge.

A diplomat in Colombo was not relaxed. "People are drinking and dancing in front of Buddha’s images. It’s a sensitive issue, it’s a disgrace. How can Buddha’s images be used commercially?" he asked me.

So, Lankan envoys in countries where the bars are located – Beirut, Moscow, Shanghai, Kiev, Dubai, Jakarta, Prague and Sao Paolo and so on – have been instructed to take it up with governments.

The diplomat wasn’t too sure about what to do though; it’s a privately-run chain and the French (it’s headquartered in Paris) or the Brazil or the Lebanese governments are not expected to step into the running of these popular places.

In March, R&B singer Akon was stopped from entering Sri Lanka as one of his videos showed women in bikinis dancing around Buddha’s statue. But convincing other governments to pull down shutters on a private chain would be rather difficult. "We’ll enlist the support of other Buddhist nations like Thailand and make representations to the company to remove the images," the diplomat ventured.

Good beginning, but at this busy rate, and especially in this case, Lankan diplomats might need to meditate for divine diplomacy to sort out the issue.