Hong Kong professor held in Myanmar over Buddha leg tattoo plans to ink over image

Canadian lecturer and girlfriend almost deported over 'offensive' markings on his leg

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 4:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 9:18am

A Hong Kong university professor plans to return to Myanmar despite almost being deported this month after he was accused of inciting religious hatred with tattoos of Buddha on his leg.

Canadian national Jason Polley, who teaches English literature at Baptist University, said he and his Hongkonger girlfriend Margaret Lam narrowly escaped deportation after a social media storm erupted when a picture of his tattoos went viral online.

Shortly after the pair arrived in Myanmar on July 29 for a month-long holiday, a passer-by took a photo of Polley's tattoos and posted it on Facebook.

Buddhists believe the feet are dirty and this can extend to the lower limbs, so images of Buddha on these areas may be regarded as highly offensive.

Polley, 39, who is Mahayana Buddhist, and Lam, 23, continued their travels, but five days later, more than a dozen government officials turned up at their hotel in Inle Lake, central Myanmar. The area is near the restive Mandalay city, where tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have flared in recent months.

"The official narrative proffered from the Facebook story was about me somehow being in league with Muslim radicals to deface Buddhism," Polley said yesterday from his hotel room in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Officials interrogated him for an hour and seized his and his girlfriend's passports.

"They thought I was intentionally trying to demean Buddhism because I have tattoos of Lord Buddha on my leg."

Polley said recent reports of people printing Buddha images on a sarong-like wrap called a lungi had led officials to draw a link between his tattoo and the offensive clothing.

At 10pm, Polley and Lam were bundled into a car for a 15-hour ride to Yangon airport and led to believe they would be deported.

"Around 8am, I started texting friends in Hong Kong to get in touch with the Chinese embassy," he said. An hour later, Chinese diplomats in Yangon called and by 10.30am, Hong Kong immigration had texted him.

Polley said the Chinese diplomats' intervention led to officials saying they could remain in Myanmar and that it had been a misunderstanding.

"But we deemed it safest to leave, given the disinformation about Jason … circulating in Myanmar," Lam said.

The two are now travelling through Thailand and Laos but say they plan to return to Myanmar, possibly next summer.

Polley says he has decided to cover over the tattoos and estimates it will cost HK$12,000, three times the cost of the originals, which he got in Tsim Sha Tsui two years ago.