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How (not) to protest at the US Embassy, according to the Thai junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 10, 2014 We recently mentioned the foreign reactions (and sanctions) of the international community in the aftermath of the military coup in Thailand, and the reaction of the Thai military junta. The junta's response was somewhere between indifference towards the Western condemnation and longing for approval, even by Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, its historically frowned-upon and not-so-democratic neighbors.

One of the countries that's in the focus when it comes to reactions to incidents and events happening elsewhere in the world is obviously the United States, a long-time ally with bilateral relations going back as far as the early 19th century.

The US have downgraded its military relations with their Thai counterpart by suspending military aid worth $4.7m (a drop in the ocean compared to the total Thai military budget estimated at $5.4bn) and cancelling several joint-exercises, though a decision to relocate the long-running regional and multi-national military exercise Cobra Gold has not been made yet. Also, a senior US official told a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. in late June that military rule in Thailand will stay "longer than expected" and has expressed his skepticism towards the sincerity of the junta's reconciliation efforts.

Obviously these sanctions have caused pro-coup Thais to lash out against the US, basically telling them to keep out of Thailand's business while repeatedly banging the "foreigners don't understand Thailand" drum - but that's another story. Naturally, the Embassy of the United States was also targeted by protests from both anti- and pro-coup protesters, despite a ban of political gatherings by the military junta.

The lone protester, Thep Vetchavisit, said he was there to voice his anger towards the US government for downgrading its military relations with Thailand in response to last month's military coup d'etat. Mr. Thep arrived at the US Embassy on motorcycle and presented caricatures of former American presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to the embassy officials. He spent the next ten minutes posing for photos in front of a crowd of reporters outside the embassy.

"America, don't poke your nose into Thailand's [internal] issues," Mr. Thep told reporters. "We have been living for many years peacefully. When the Thais started to fight and kill each other, the soldiers intervened to maintain peace, so that Thais won't kill each other."

Mr. Thep said the American authorities should learn a lesson from Iraq, "which is now a mess," and refrain from interfering with Thai politics any further.

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

Despite an apparently emotional anti-American and pro-coup protest, the local authorities saw nothing wrong with that:

Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay, the deputy chief of Bangkok police, said Mr. Thep's outbursts against the US government did not count as a protest.

"No chaotic incidents happened. There was only a gesture of anger about America’s interfering in Thailand's internal affairs, and a demand for the Americans to stop such behaviour," Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay said to reporters after Mr. Thep left the scene. "This man's actions do not count as a violation of the legal ban on political protests, because it was merely an expression of anger."

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

So, then it's okay to protest at the US Embassy, right...?

Deputy National Police Chief Somyot Phumphanmuang is to summon the student activists who ate “anti-coup sandwiches” in front of the US Embassy on Tuesday, and send them to the military for “attitude adjustment,” Naewna has reported.

Half a dozen student activists from the Thai Student Centre for Democracy gathered in front of the United States Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday morning to “test the standards of the authorities,” after a lone anti-American, pro-coup demonstrator held a solo protest in front of the US Embassy on Sunday but was not arrested.

The students were able to carry out the activity for around 15 minutes, then they dispersed without getting arrested.

-"Police to summon ‘sandwich protest’ student activists for attitude adjustment", Prachatai English, July 1, 2014

Hm ok, but what about just congratulating the United States on their national holiday...?

Thai police arrested and charged a woman protester for showing support for the US in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok on 4 July, Independence Day.

The police charged Chaowanat Musikabhumi, aka “Nong,” with defying the coup makers’ order banning political assemblies. She is now detained at the Crime Suppressiong Division.

When she was interrogated by the military and security officers at the Thai Army Club, the military officers told her that by holding a placard reading “Long Live USA Day,” she may have violated Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the lèse majesté law that the placard deemed a parody of “Long Live the King.”

She tried to explain that the phrase “long live” is not only used for blessing a monarch as in the Thai phrase Song Phra Charoen, but can be used in many contexts. She added that she was just aimed at showing appreciation for the long-life US democracy.

-"Protester may face lèse majesté for holding “Long Live USA” placard on July 4th", Prachatai English, July 8, 2014

It is evident that publicly reading "1984", eating sandwiches and showing the three-finger salute as a form of protest are absolutely verboten because of their suspected anti-coup sentiments, and even go so far to monopolize the phrase "Long Live" and twist it into a lèse majesté case, while it is absolutely legal to protest at the United States and its embassy (at best even alone) to effectively tell them to keep out of Thailand's business, no matter how lopsided or broken its politics currently are.

Some protests are apparently indeed more equal than others.

[UPDATE, July 11] The "Long Live USA"-protester who was threatened with lèse majesté-charges has been released with no charges on Friday, Prachatai reports. But as with many other previous detainees, she has to sign an agreement that she will not engage in any "political activities" anymore.

Thai Culture Minister slams SNL 'Rosetta Stone' sketch

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 5, 2013 About two weeks ago, the long-running US-American TV-show "Saturday Night Live" on NBC* had a skit lampooning the language-learning software Rosetta Stone (see embedded video below). In the parody commercial, some of the testimonials claim to use the software to learn Thai, order "to go to Thailand - for a thing...!" Of course, given that these are sketchy-looking white male - that 'thing' could mean only one thing: these men are learning (surprisingly accurate) Thai phrases to engage with prostitutes - including the groan-inducing ping-pong reference.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZCXy8XIIfk

Now, since the show is hardly shown anywhere but the United States and the 'meh'-sketch of course is tailored to an American audience by a comedy show that had its best days - you would think that this would go away very quickly, right? Not really: a bootleg was put on YouTube for the whole world to see until it eventually made its way to Thailand. And that's how the story kicked off.

While this doesn't qualify as 'viral' (that video only had slightly more than 120,000 views), the sketch sparked outrage and heated debate online among Thais. Most of the comments cannot be reproduced here, but you can read some of them (mostly in Thai) here. This story was quickly picked up by local mainstream media outlets like Channel 3, ThaiPBS and Thai Rath. While it is understandable that some Thais would take offense, some of the reactions were perhaps over the top.

And then the Thai Culture Minister chimed in...

Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem** said on Monday that the Culture Watch Centre is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an effort to have the video removed from the world's most popular video sharing website.

The government will also inform the United States embassy that the commercial spoof is tarnishing Thailand's image and will ask the embassy to explain the situation to the producer of Saturday Night Live, Mr Sonthaya said.

"Government to demand takedown of sex-trade spoof", Bangkok Post, February 4, 2013

Yes, the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thai”-ness that we like to call the "ThaiMiniCult" are back and they inadvertently caused the Streisand effect to take place. While the YouTube video was removed, most likely because it too many people flagged it as spam (and not as Thai officials would like to think that YouTube has granted their request), more copies have popped up elsewhere, including the one embedded above.

And by moaning complaining to the US Embassy, it reveals the misguided conception by Thai officials that foreign officials can wield the same influence in their country as they do (or like to think they still can) here in Thailand, as the recent controversy over a cancelled soap opera and rumors about political interference has shown.

In general, Thailand tends to be very sensitive by negative perceptions of the country, especially if there are being pointed out by foreigners: Last summer upon her arrival in Bangkok, pop artist Lady Gaga tweeted her desire to buy a fake Rolex watch. The comment sparked outrage that climaxed with the Commerce Minister's official complaint at the US Embassy.

It is understandable that Thailand wants to protect its image, given the value of its booming tourism industry. However, there is no real attempt to address real and serious issues like the sex industry and in general, many inconvenient truths are being swept under the carpet for the sake of the Kingdom's image. It is an image (whether it is accurate or real is the topic for another debate) that Thais are strongly defending - while at the same time much of Thai entertainment promotes stereotypes about its neighboring countries and even about their own people - why else are people from the rural Northeast still being called 'water buffaloes'?

May be Thais can counter the SNL sketch. Global Post's Patrick Winn has a good suggestion:

So here's an idea for any Thais intent on a rebuttal. Film a Rosetta Stone parody of misfit Thais learning English. Why English? So they can fly to America and purchase assault rifles.

"Thai government aghast at SNL's "Rosetta Stone" sketch", by Patrick Winn, GlobalPost.com, February 4, 2013

*What a shame that the comedy series "30 Rock" has wrapped up its run - would have loved to see how they would have handled it!

**By the way: The current culture minister Sonthaya took the post not too long ago after his five-year ban from politics ended, during which time his wife kept this seat warm for him. Also, his father is currently in some serious trouble...!

Thailand in 2012 - Some personal thoughts (Part 2)

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2012 This is the second and final part of the Siam Voices year-in-review. Yesterday in part 1, we looked at the year of prime minister's government, that of the opposition and the prevailing impunity over the 2010 crackdown.

Lese majeste: Cowardice in the face of first victim

One topic we expected to continue to play a role in 2012 is the draconian lèse majesté law and its unjust application to crack down on alleged dissent voices. And in many ways - despite the release of Thai-American Joe Gordon and an 'only' suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting monarchy-insulting web comments quickly enough - it unfortunately still made headlines for the wrong reasons.

The death of Amphon "Akong" Tangnoppakul marked what could be argued the first victim of lèse majesté. The 64-year-old retiree was serving a 20 year sentence for allegedly sending four defamatory text messages to the personal secretary of Abhisit Vejjajiva (despite inconclusive evidence). Having repeatedly being denied bail and suffering bad health, Akong died in detention on May 8. Obviously, his death sparked universal condemnation against the law - almost: Thailand politicians showed little sympathy and interest to do something about the arbitrary law, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra insisting not to do anything to change Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Up until this point, the heated discussion about how to amend or if not abolish the law altogether was ongoing. Leading this debate was the Nitirat group, a collective of reformist law academics from Thammasat University, amidst considerable uproar. And it was that university that had a reputation for being one of the more liberal institutions in this country that was struggling and battling with itself, which led to one of the most astonishing sights of this year: of all people, journalism students (!) were seen protesting against Nitirat and the reform of the lèse majesté law by saying “Don’t use knowledge to distort morality!”

The chances that the law will be somehow changed (or even just remotely touched by politicians) remain slim as two incidents have shown that it is untouchable: the Constitutional Court rejected a petition by Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Ekachai Hongkangwan, both currently on trial for lèse majesté, as it does not see the constitutional right to free speech being violated by Article 112 of the Criminal Code. In another story, a bill petition proposing to amend the law - signed by over 30,000 - was dismissed by the speaker of the parliament.

Meanwhile earlier this week, a former stockbroker has been sentenced to four years in prison under the equally flawed Computer Crimes Act for spreading "false information".

Emerging neighbors: Thailand's geo-political opportunities and blunders

This past year showed the rapid rise of neighboring Myanmar, as the country carefully progresses economically and politically - despite the unmasking of the ugly side of the Burmese pro-democracy movement regarding the genocide against the Rohingya - and other countries of course are in a gold rush mood, as they see new investment opportunities and also to grow their regional influence.

Thailand was one of the few countries that already did business with its neighbor before the change and the upcoming industrial area and deep sea port in Dawei on Myanmar's west coast is the biggest of them. But we reported at the beginning of this year that the mega-project ran into some problems and also caused the Thai government to reconsider their commitment. However, after a visit by Prime Minister Yingluck to Myanmar it seems to be on track again.

A different story shows how Thailand has lost some regional credibility: When NASA planned to use the Thai naval airbase in U-Tapao for atmospheric research study, the opposition Democrat Party drummed up nationalistic outrage and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists came out crawling again - conveniently forgetting that...

Officials have noted that the Democrats, now opposed to the NASA initiative, approved the program while in power in 2010 and that it would not entail the use of military aircraft.

"Baseless controversy over Thailand's U-Tapao", Asia Times One, June 22, 2012

It was petty domestic political squabbles that eventually led the annoyed NASA to kill the project and gave Thailand a huge slap to the face geo-politically for not being able to sort itself out.

While the prime minister was busy traveling the world this year to bolster economical ties (read our exclusive report on her visit to Germany and France here), Thailand needs to take charge in the ASEAN region (and without looking down on its neighbors), if it doesn't want to loose relevancy.

The exploits of "ThaiMiniCult" in 2012: Mammophobia!

Of course it wouldn't be Siam Voices if we wouldn't monitor the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thai”-ness - or in short "ThaiMiniCult". And while this year they have been noticeably less outraged in quantity, there were still instances when we could only shake our heads.

There was for example the ThaiMiniCult that was rumored (and thank god it was only a rumor) to order that "100 per cent males" shouldn't play transgender roles on TV. Or some arbitrary survey that blames Facebook for teen pregnancies, only to find out that it was lazy journalism that caused that headline, while the real problem of nearly non-existing sexual education is being swept under the carpet. Or the MP that was caught looking up some naughty pictures on his phone in parliament.

But probably the most noticeable media outrage (and also the most-clicked Siam Voices story of 2012) was the 'controversy' over the literally bare-breasted painting performance on the TV show "Thailand's Got Talent" that caused one of the judges to throw a sanctimonious tantrum on national TV and a moral witch-hunt. In the end, it turns out that the producers have "hired" her for a staged controversy. However, given how Thais reacted (or claimed to react) to this brouhaha, it was in many ways revealing.

What else happened this year? (in no particular order)

- The four-part series on Thai Education Failures by our regular Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala is a must-read! Be it ridiculous O-Net questions, questionable standardization, our poor international performance and lacking English proficiencies - our archaic education system is in dire need of change! And what does the Pheu Thai government do? Give away free tablets...!

- A rape case in Krabi, the disgusting denial by the Thai tourism minister in order to 'protect' the image and a father's creative plea for justice.

- Thais being outraged by five tourist douchebags cutting down a tree while most population doesn't give a damn about their own environmental lifestyle and willingly plastic-bags everything...!

- Thais being outraged at Lady Gaga for tweeting the intention of buying a fake Rolex while most of the population otherwise willingly ignores the countless counterfeit markets, and after campaigns by outraged religious groups in the Philippines and Indonesia to ban her concerts, looking rather silly and childish...!

- The Thai senator who accidentally shot his wife...or secretary...or cousin...with an uzi...or not...!

- In upside-down world news this year: The reactionary right-wing ASTV/Manager (media outlet of the anti-democratic yellow shirts) accuses the blatantly anti-Thaksin The Nation (an attempt of a newspaper) of being pro-Thaksin - mind blown!

- "Double, double toil and trouble;" - Thailand's movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" gets banned, but not for the depiction of regicide, rather for the depiction of another "Dear Leader" and the disparagement of his followers.

- Three Iranian terrorists literally blowing up their cover on Valentine's Day in the middle of Bangkok after a warning by the United States Embassy and the immediate arrest of a Hezbollah suspect a month before that and the tweeting motorcycle taxi driver that got the scoop of his lifetime. And deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as the spiritual successor of the former Iraqi information minister by saying that there's "absolutely no terrorism" in the kingdom.

- Deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung as our new regular contributor to the "Tongue-Thai’ed!"-segments and coming up with the most creative name for the new command center in the South!

- The tsunami scare in April and the failure of Thai TV to inform the public because of a royal cremation ceremony.

- The Dhammakāya Movement's newest revelation: the afterlife of Apple's Steve Jobs...!

- The visit of US President Barack Obama to Thailand, and his meeting with Yingluck Shinwatra and half of the internet not able to be mature about it.

- The Bangkok Futsal Arena fiasco, as the city has failed to construct a purposed-built arena in time for FIFA Futsal World Cup and thus embarrassing themselves on a world stage.

- The return of the fraudulent bomb-sniffing device also known as the GT200, essentially a horrendously overpriced empty plastic shell with a dowsing rod. It's ineffectiveness has been proven since 2010, but it has emerged that the bogus device is still in use by the armed forces for the simple reason that there's "no alternative" but to keep on using it until there's a replacement, while soldiers are unnecessarily risking their lives more than they should because of this fraud, whose UK manufacturer has been charged this year.

- Thailand has FINALLY reached the early 21st century with the arrival of real 3G network coverage after an eternal farce and one last court decision - while neighboring Laos is preparing for 4G already...!

- And last, but not least: The still undisputed, most coherent article by The Nation - EVER!

I’d like to thank my co-writers and editors at Siam Voices and Asian Correspondent for their contributions and work this year, and YOU, the readers, for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets! Here’s to an eventful, exciting 2013 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss and report for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!

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?

Thai Culture Ministry to crack down on religious tattoos on foreign skin

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 31, 2011

Tattoos have a very special place in Thailand. They're more than just permanent fashion statements, not unlike amulets they are regarded as spiritual guardians. Tattoos with religious or spiritual motives, called Yantra tattoos, are yet another sign that Thais take their beliefs skin-deep. Philip Cornwel-Smith dedicated a whole chapter in his excellent book "Very Thai" about this issue:

You are what you wear. While apt in fashion, the saying is literally true if it's a Thai tattoo in which you're clad. Imbued with magical powers, the arcane roi sak (tattoos) possess their owners - mostly men - at intense moments like combat, love or ritual. (...)

Like all amulets, it requires activation by the tattooist [mostly by a monk], who murmurs incantations in khom [ancient Khmer script] while he wields a two-foot steel needle, (...) It's the spell that matter. Call it spiritual insurance, for most seek roi sak for invincibility. (...)

With Thailand's government pledging to bar monks from performing tattooing rituals, roi sak is another tradition on the wane.

From: "Very Thai", by Philip Cornwel-Smith, 2005

Still to this day, religious tattoos are very popular among Thais (especially young men) to an extent that is probably best encapsulated by the annual tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaisri near Bangkok. And how a simple tattoo can literally turn out the beast in a man can be seen in this video here.

These tats are also a favorite among tourists, who mostly do it for looks and don't care much about the mystery behind it. In that light, it is nearly unavoidable that someone would contest that, right?

Enter the self-proclaimed herald of everything 'Thai-ness'...

Citing a survey in Phuket Island, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat admitted that a number of foreigners coming to Thailand are interested in having their skin tattooed with Buddha images or Hindu god Ganesh in several parts of their bodies such as arms, legs, ankles or chests. The minister indicated that using religious objects as tattoo patterns is inappropriate according to the Thai tradition and culture as well as affect the faith of people toward those religions.

Religious tattoo patterns are very popular among foreign tourists and can be as expensive as 20,000 baht each. Some of the tourists deem religious tattoo patterns a fashion without any religious respect while some probably have those tattoos because of ignorance.

Mr Nipit stated that the ministry hence asked provincial governors nationwide, especially provinces with foreign tourists such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai to inspect tattoo studios and seek their cooperation not to use sacred objects of all religions as tattoo patterns. The minister then announced that he will ask the Office of the National Culture Commission to issue a law banning people from using sacred objects or holy beings in Buddhism or any other religions in their tattoo patterns.

"Culture Ministry alerted by religious tattoo patterns", National News Bureau of Thailand, May 31, 2011

After having 'successfully' restored sovereign 'Thai-ness' against the un-Thai drunken, public bearing of bare female breasts by inciting a witchhunt (against what tureds out to be teenagers), Nipit now turns against the non-Thais daring to display the sacred motives of the Lord Buddha without paying respect to the culture, beliefs and moral sovereignty of the Kingdom, just to fulfill their vain pursuit for superficial acknowledgement, a typical Western.... - sorry, I got carried away there...!

Kidding aside, does this mean that Angelina Jolie has to remove some of her tattoos? Also what is evident by that move of the culture minister is the monopoly claim over Buddhism or faith in general and more or less defining what that is and how one should behave within that realm (like they are trying to impose their vision 'Thai-ness' in general). If only the Vatican would complain in the same fashion about the countless Jesus and crosses motives...

h/t to @wisekwai for the link and the Angelina Jolie-joke!