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 Buddha is fighting calls for its closure less than three months after 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 Web site, 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 last month.
The bar is decorated like a shrine to exoticism. Buddha images peer from almost every wall and the 5m 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 in 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 30 billion rupiah [US$2.52 million] to renovate the historic building. Initially, the renovation fund was 1 billion rupiah, 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 next month and in July, Visan 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 said in Paris.
As for the Buddhists, Visan 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,” Visan 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.