Advice to tourists: don’t show your Buddha tattoo in Myanmar

Westerners have been arrested, deported and even imprisoned for disrespecting Buddha with tattoos or featuring his image on posters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 4:46pm

The skyline of Bagan, Myanmar, is dotted with more than 2,200 Buddhist temples. Built largely in the 13th and 14th centuries, they’re beautiful – a dusty red sandstone or a glinting gold – with massive Buddha statues inside. People flock from Thailand, China, Japan, the United States and Europe to see the ancient city and often to practise Buddhism.

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But Westerners approach Buddhism differently to locals. That was made obvious when Myanmese officials were poised to deport a Spanish tourist with a Buddha tattooed on the back of his leg.

The Spaniard, identified as Cesar Hernandez, was with his wife when monks in Bagan started noticing the tattoo. Photos show that it covers nearly all of the back of his calf.

“Monks in Bagan saw a Buddha tattoo on his right leg because he was wearing shorts. They informed us as it’s not appropriate,” a police officer in Bagan told AFP anonymously.

Hernandez and his wife then got the boot from Bagan. They were placed in detention nearly 400 miles away in Rangoon, Myanmar’s largest city. An officer said that the country planned to deport the Spaniard to Bangkok. “We will send him back because he violated the rules as a tourist here,” he said.

But the regime had an about-face. Soe Win, the minister of religious affairs and culture, said the couple were merely “advised” to leave the country. “We have no reason to deport them. We’ll just ask them to take care for their safety because some people would view the tattoo on his leg as an insult to the religion.”

It’s not known if the Spaniards are still in the country. But it’s not the best region for Westerners who treat Buddhism casually. Tourists generally were banned in February from scaling Bagan’s pagodas, a practice that officials called “disgraceful.” A Canadian professor was deported two years ago because he too had a Buddha tattoo. That same year, Sri Lanka deported a British nurse who had inked the Buddha on her arm.

Both insisted that they tattooed the man on their bodies out of religious devotion, not lack of respect. They were told that they were violating the law, put into custody, then kicked out.

But having one’s holiday cut short is perhaps not the worst result. Last year, a bar manager from New Zealand was sentenced to two-and-a-half years of prison and hard labour in Myanmar because he advertised a cheap drinks night with a psychedelic image of the Buddha sporting headphones. Judge Ye Lwin said Philip Blackwood, the manager, had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the photo. Blackwood roundly denied it; he has since returned home after 13 months of sleeping on a wooden pallet in prison.

Buddhism has a surprising hold on Myanmar’s politics – and not always in positive ways. Radical monks were involved in passing laws that restrict the rights of Myanmese religious minorities (particularly Muslims) and women last year, where its nationalist message is popular.

The Washington Post