No tattoos please, we're Buddhists

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No tattoos please, we’re Buddhists

by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya


The Sri Lankan government likes to show its Buddhist heritage to tourists. (Ronald Saunders under a Creative Commons Licence)

The Sri Lankan government agreed to open ‘super-luxury tourist resorts’. But this means they have to think carefully about what is acceptable to their religion. Many people do not agree with the project. They believe these resorts will bring casinos into the country for the first time. Foreigners have already invested $1.3 billion into the resorts – one investor is James Packer, an Australian casino tycoon.

The Sri Lankan Parliament are giving big tax breaks for these projects. Many members of the ruling coalition, including some cabinet ministers, were not in parliament for the vote; that was the first sign that some of the government do not agree.

The most important monks of the country’s three Buddhist groups wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa asking him to change the regulations. They were worried that people could lose religious and cultural values. They warned, together with other people, that this resort project will also bring gambling and other social problems like prostitution (illegal in Sri Lanka). There are already some smaller casinos in the country.

After these protests, the government now says casinos will not be allowed in the new resorts. But the website of Packer’s local company Crown Sri Lanka still says that they will have ‘world-class gaming facilities’. Sri Lanka knows that many tourists go there because of Buddhism. And Buddhism has a special place in the constitution. But something happened recently to show that the government are not clear about their views on religion and tourism.

Last week, a British tourist was arrested and sent back to her country because she had a tattoo of the Buddha on her arm. The reports say the police treated her badly and asked her to pay them money. Then they took her to court and she was sent back to her country (deported) with no explanation. Naomi Coleman said it was a terrible experience. She had told the people who arrested her and sent her home that she was a practising Buddhist; she had visited Sri Lanka before (and Thailand and Cambodia), for meditation retreats. But they didn’t listen.

Ajith Rohana, from the Sri Lankan police, told the BBC that Coleman was deported because of a law that makes it illegal to make people with religious feelings unhappy by insulting the religion or religious beliefs. But Naomi Coleman’s arrest and deportation was at a time when other people were also doing things that could make people with religious feelings unhappy.

Members of an extremist Buddhist nationalist group called the Bodu Bala Sena (‘Buddhist army’, BBS) treated a monk very badly. They accused him publicly of being pro-Muslim. The police did not help bring order to his press conference. The group, who wear saffron-robes (long yellow clothes), broke into a government ministry building, and said that the monk was hiding there. The bad language and gestures used by the BBS – mainly against Muslim and Christian minorities – have been on public television. But no-one says this is insulting to religious beliefs.

It is true that religious pictures or tattoos could make some local people unhappy, but the reaction of Sri Lankan authorities to Naomi Coleman was more because they wanted money than because they were upset about her Buddha tattoo. ‘This is very worrying,’ said the Asian Human Rights Commission. Tourist authorities know that this could stop some tourists coming to Sri Lanka, so they bought Coleman a business-class air ticket home and offered her a free holiday if she wanted to return. But there is still the court order for deportation.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).