Traveling in Myanmar? Respect Buddha & Buddhism

Close-up of a Buddha statue (Sri Lanka)

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To go by Jim Croce, "You don't tug on Superman's cape; you don't spit into the wind; you don't pull the mask off that ol' Lone Ranger." And to go by recent events in Myanmar, you don't take the Buddha's image in vain.

A number of foreigners have made that mistake and paid dearly. Most recently, a Spanish tourist was collared around one of Bagan's temples when monks spotted a tattoo of the Buddha on his calf. In a similar case, a Canadian tourist was arrested in Inle Lake after a local noticed the Buddha's face tattooed on his leg. Both were immediately expelled from Myanmar "for their safety." 

And both cases pale in comparison to the expatriate manager of a bar in Yangon who served over a year in prison, just for posting an online image of the Buddha in headphones. 

These examples illustrate the uncomfortable reality of travel in Myanmar. Foreign travelers may be lulled by the easygoing use of Buddha iconography elsewhere in the world, then find out the hard way that Myanmar applies far harsher rules. And Myanmar's mixed history with the West being what it is, local authorities are eager to make an example of Westerners who cross the line.

The Case of the Headphones-Wearing Buddha

Hey, if the Buddha Bar could do it, why couldn't VGastro do it too? To promote their establishment on Facebook, New Zealander Philip Blackwood posted a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones - judging from the psychedelic background, he was probably listening to something trippy.

The picture immediately went viral for all the wrong reasons. Angry Burmese passed the image around on social media, and a protest was organized in front of VGastro bar - notably attended by monks associated with the anti-Muslim movement elsewhere in Myanmar. The local police were compelled to take action; Blackwood was arrested along with the Burmese owner and manager in December 2014 and held in Yangon's notorious Insein Prison.

"During the interrogation session, Mr. Philip, who runs the bar mostly, said he posted the pamphlet online on December 9 to promote the bar," Lt-Col. Thien Win, Bahan police deputy-superintendent, later told Irrawaddy magazine. "He said he did it because using the Buddha in ads is in fashion internationally and thought it would attract more attention."

In prison, Blackwood couldn't catch a break. As a foreigner, he was not allowed any visitors. And four local lawyers turned his case down, one citing police pressure.

In March 2015, Blackwood and his Burmese colleagues were sentenced to two years in prison under articles 295 and 295(a) of the Myanmar Penal Code that punish "insulting religion" and "hurting religious feelings." An additional six months was tacked onto the sentence for violating zoning regulations. Blackwood was eventually released in late January the next year and immediately flew back to New Zealand.

The Case of the Buddha Leg Tattoos

By comparison, Jason Polley and Cesar Hernan Valdez got off easy. Polley, a Canadian university professor, is a practicing Mahayana Buddhist, and he told CBC News that he got a tattoo of the Buddha on his leg "to represent a pillar of support."

Some Burmese did not see the tattoo in the same way. When Polley and his girlfriend visited Myanmar in July 2014, a Burmese citizen took a picture of Polley's leg and made an angry post of it on Facebook which, like Blackwood's Buddha image, immediately attracted all sorts of unwelcome attention.

It turns out the position of Jason's Buddha tattoo was somewhat blasphemous. The Burmese share the Balinese and Thai discomfort with lower body parts, and the sight of the Buddha so casually imprinted on a man's leg evoked a visceral reaction from conservative Burmese Buddhists.

The authorities were alerted and caught up with Polley at Inle Lake. Polley and his girlfriend were immediately put on a car to Yangon International Airport, 15 hours away; Chinese Embassy officials in Hong Kong intervened on their behalf, but the pair decided to leave anyway. "We deemed it safest to leave, given the disinformation about Jason… circulating in Myanmar," Polley's girlfriend Margaret Lam told the South China Morning Post.

Two years later, a certain Cesar Hernan Valdez was arrested in Bagan after a monk saw his Buddha leg tattoo and reported it to the tourist police. (This is the Burmese-language Facebook post that broke the news.) Like Polley, Valdez was detained, brought to Yangon and sent home.

"We have no reason to deport them," Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture official Aung San Win later explained. "We 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."

A Rising Tide of Nationalism in Myanmar

It's easy to draw parallels between these cases in Myanmar and neighboring Thailand's intolerance of any insults to their King. Like the King in Thailand, Buddhism in Myanmar stands at the very center of Burmese national identity.

And like the Thai Monarch, the image of the Buddha serves as a potent rallying call for certain interest groups. Just as lese majeste trials in Thailand have risen sharply along with the state of political unrest, the Buddha prosecutions seem to go hand in hand with an incipient Burmese nationalism.

Buddhist nationalist groups like the 969 Movement and Ma-Ba Tha have gained massive grassroots support, which they use to push laws that restrict religious freedom in Myanmar (Buddhist women, for instance, are banned from marrying men belonging to other religions, to go by a recently approved law).

Their motivations are as nationalist as they are religious, which puts Westerners like Blackwood and Polley in a pretty bad spot. The Burmese, still stinging from their century-long subjugation under the British Raj, will not hesitate to get back at Westerners making light of their most deeply-held convictions.

Lessons Learned the Hard Way

It is in no way an attempt to blame the Westerners affected, who seem guilty only of ignorance of Myanmar's laws on religious feelings. Bad timing, too, plays a part: their offenses would not have been as severely punished in the past, but the national feeling in Myanmar right now has changed.

And it might not be easy to accept, but suspicion of foreigners certainly factors in. The Burmese may have largely accepted tourists with open arms, but not all do. It is true of Southeast Asia in general, not just Myanmar: locals are particularly sensitive to foreigners behaving badly, and there are enough outraged locals on Facebook to ensure that your faux pas goes viral in a flash. (Jason Polley was blissfully unaware of the offense his leg tattoo had caused until Burmese officials told him, "You understand that you're a Facebook star in Myanmar?")

There is one lesson travelers should take from this: do not take your host country's beliefs lightly. This applies as much in Cambodia and Indonesia as it does in Myanmar: as easygoing as the locals seem to be, many of them draw the line at acts that trivialize their religious convictions.

Unlike in the United States and other secular Western countries, most Southeast Asian countries establish a state religion, in practice if not by statute. Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia all have laws that recognize the special position of Buddhism in society; Communist countries like Laos and Vietnam still retain a majority of Buddhist adherents.

It means that offenses caused to the local religion often have legal repercussions. And your foreign passport will do your defense no good; quite the opposite in fact. (In the worst cases, no local lawyers will want to touch your case with a seven-foot pole - just ask Philip Blackwood.)

To stay on the safe side in Myanmar (or the rest of the region, for that matter), follow these simple tips:

  • Do not discuss religion with any locals
  • Keep any religious iconography (any religion) under wraps
  • Treat any local religious imagery with respect - from the Buddha images in the temples to any Buddha-themed souvenirs
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