Thai Culture Minister’s anti-religious-tattoo-on-foreigners-gate redux

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 3, 2011 Yesterday's post on the Thai Ministry of Culture's declaration of intent to stop foreign tourists from getting religious tattoos has created quite a buzz around the net. No wonder, since this is a) a story affecting a lot of tourists, and b) quite honestly yet another stupid idea by the self-proclaimed heralds of everything 'Thai-ness'. So much so that this story took a life of its own beginning from not giving enough details to going completely hyperbole as these two snippets from the international media show:

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand has ordered a crackdown on foreign tourists having religious images tattooed on their bodies while visiting the kingdom, official media said on Wednesday.

"Thailand cracks down on religious tattoos", AFP, June 1, 2011

Thailand ordered a crackdown on the "alarming trend" of foreign tourists having religious images tattooed on their bodies while in the country, the Phuket Gazette reported Wednesday.

"Thailand Orders Crackdown on Religious Tattoos", Fox News, June 1, 2011

Reading from these two excerpts gives the impression that everybody who already has a tattoo will be stripped-searched at the airport and barred from entering the country if there's a Buddha or Jesus tattoo, which is clearly not the case (just imagine the outcry!). But where did this mistake come from? One possible source could be the Phuket Gazette:

The Culture Ministry has attacked the growing trend for tourists in Phuket and other parts of Thailand to have religious images tattooed on their bodies. It has ordered provincial governors across the country, including Phuket, to crack down on such tattoos, igniting a debate on the human rights implications of forbidding the practice.

"Crackdown ordered on religious tattoos in Phuket", Phuket Gazette, June 1, 2011

Wow, let's not get too much ahead of ourselves! I have to admit that the headline of my own article might have been misleading as well depending how you read it, although I think it rather indicates the intention to crack down on tourists from getting tats.

Nevertheless, amidst the apparent flood of bad PR from anywhere, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat has now backtracked his own verbosity:

However, at an interview with Pattaya Daily News reporter, Minister Nipit denied making any statements against tourists with religious tattoos.

Minister Nipit clarified that tourists with religious tattoos will not be prohibited from entering Thailand. The warning is directed at those tattoo shops that allow etching sacred images onto tourists’ bodies especially on the lower body parts such as ankles, Minister Nipit said.

Minister Nipit said it was a misunderstanding by foreign media that Thailand would do a body check on tourists while visiting the kingdom.

"Tattooed Tourists Welcomed In Thailand, Culture Minister Says", Phuket Daily News, June 2, 2011

So, case closed and let's move on, right? Not quite! Let's go back to the original Thai quotes he said during the announcement earlier this week that got this brouhaha started in the first place:

"ที่ประชุมมีมติให้แจ้งผู้ว่าราชการจังหวัดทั่วประเทศ โดยเฉพาะจังหวัดท่องเที่ยว ให้เข้มงวดตรวจสอบสถานประกอบการสัก โดยห้ามไม่ให้บริการสักรูปสิ่งศักดิ์สิทธิ์ของทุกศาสนาบนร่างกาย (...) ขอความร่วมมือไม่ให้นำภาพทางศาสนามาให้บริการสักแก่ชาวต่างชาติ (...)" รมว.วธ.กล่าว

"We have come to the conclusion in our meeting that all the governors, especially those in tourist areas, should inspect tattoo parlors and ask them not to use sacred motives of all religions on the bodies (...) and seek cooperation of the parlors not to tattoo sacred motives on foreigners [at all]" said the culture minister.

นายนิพิฏฐ์กล่าวอีกว่า (...) ต้องช่วยกันควบคุมไม่ให้นำรูปที่คนเคารพในทุกศาสนามาสักบนร่างกาย แม้กระทั่งสักบนศีรษะ ใบหน้า หรือขาก็ไม่ควร หากมีพฤติกรรมที่ไม่ดี เช่น ไปนั่งกินเหล้า ทะเลาะวิวาท ภาพนั้นก็จะติดบุคคลนั้นไปด้วย

Mr Nipit further states (...) everybody should support the non-use of sacred motives of all religions for tattoos on bodies, whether it is on the head, the face or the legs; it is inappropriate. If there's is bad behavior, for example alcohol consumption or loud quarrels, this will also stick with the bearer.

"(...) ผมจะนำเสนอต่อที่ประชุมคณะกรรมการวัฒนธรรมแห่งชาติ เพื่อขอความเห็นชอบในการออกกฎหมายในการนำสัญลักษณ์ทางศาสนามาใช้ในเชิงพาณิชย์ต่อไป โดยจะเอาผิดทั้งผู้ให้บริการ และผู้ใช้บริการ" นายนิพิฏฐ์กล่าว

I will inquire at the Office of the National Culture Commission for agreeing on a law banning any religious motives for commercial use, which will penalize both parlors and customers," said Mr Nipit.

"นิพิฏฐ์อีกแล้ว ห้ามสักรูปพระ", Khao Sod, May 31, 2011

I don't know where to start...! Who in their right mind would get a tattoo on their head or on their face (unless your name is Mike Tyson or Stu or you are a Maori warrior)? And the 'sin by association' is quite an argument - the original article also quotes someone form the Cultural Surveillance Center (sad enough that such a thing exists!) warning if “people who showed their bodies for a living, such as prostitutes and go-go dancers, had a religious tattoos, it would undermine respect for religion" - again, why would these people get such a tat? It's pretty much crying hypocrisy at the wrong problem!

And most of all, even though Mr Nipit said in the most recent denial that only the parlors would be targeted, the original intent was to draft a law that would penalize both the customer and the tattoo artist after all!

What this more-than-absurd episode reveals though (and probably will be overlooked by the international media as soon as this story cools down) is the anachronistic mindset of the Ministry of Culture (or also often mockingly referred as 'MiniCult') to control and forcefully define what 'Thai culture' in their view is. Problem is, as explained in our interview with Kaewmala, their vision of 'Thai culture' is a recent construct and not always historically accurate. Another point of contention is the monopoly of Buddhism claimed by the Ministry of Culture and thus to define the religion, as this side note from this tattoo-gate reveals:

Mr Niphit said the ministry would publish guidelines on the "acceptable use" of Buddha images and religious items for business operators and tourists.

The guidelines will give advice on how to portray or treat Buddha images, teachings, pictures and photos. They will also urge respectful handling of monks' garb and items and temples' important features. People are discouraged from dressing like monks, or portraying monks in an unfavourable light.

Tattoo artists, business operators and movie makers are unhappy about the restrictions. Pawat Pawangkasiri, director of Nak Prok (In the Shadow of Naga), a film about bandits who disguise themselves as monks, said the guidelines seem vague and could threaten freedom of expression.

"If a filmmaker wants to portray monks with the aim of constructively criticising Buddhism, would that be allowed?

"Who will judge what is appropriate? If monks are forbidden to do comedy in films, the guidelines have to specify which joke is okay, and which is not," Mr Pawat said.

"Buddha curbs 'stifle expression'", Bangkok Post, June 3, 2011

Indeed this is a real problem in the making should these guidelines be as ambiguous as other laws in Thailand and actually enforced (not that they had a good track record except for one particular issue). The authorities claim to define what the Buddhist religion should be from their point of view instead of letting it evolve naturally by itself. After this there's only one question left: WWBD - What would Buddha do?