A tattoo of the Buddha gets you thrown out of Sri Lanka


British tourist Naomi Coleman displays a tattoo of the Buddha on her upper arm, after she was arrested at Sri Lanka's main international airport and later ordered with deportation. (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

A British woman, identified in media reports as Naomi Coleman, a 37-year-old nurse, was arrested Monday and sent to a deportation center soon after arriving in Sri Lanka. The reason? A taxi driver and plain clothes police officer spotted the tattoo on her arm of an image of the Buddha sitting atop a lotus flower.

Coleman was accused by the police of "hurting others' religious feelings" in the Buddhist-majority island nation and is expected to be deported in the coming days. She protested her innocence, according to an Agence France-Presse report:

"It is a terrible, hellish experience," said Ms Coleman, a mental health nurse from Coventry in England.

"I am a practising Buddhist and meditate. That is why I have the tattoo -- not out of disrespect for Buddhism."

Coleman is hardly the first Western national to fall afoul of Sri Lanka's sensitive laws regarding the Buddha, no matter his or her respect and devotion to the Buddhist faith. Last March, another Briton with a Buddha tattoo was deported when transiting through Colombo. In 2012, three French tourists were given a suspended sentence after posing in photographs pretending to kiss statues of the Buddha. The R&B artist Akon was denied a Sri Lankan visa in 2010 after appearing in a music video where an image of a Buddha statue appears briefly (and indistinctly) in the background behind a scene of skimpily-dressed women cavorting with the singer.

Many countries in Asia bristle at the licentiousness of Western tourists, especially those who happen to go around with little clothing. But Sri Lanka's particular sensitivity regarding the Buddha is acute and has grown more conspicuous during the rule of country's current President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The vast majority of Buddhists on the island are Sinhalese, an ethnic group that also happens to be the majority alongside significant Tamil and Muslim minority populations. Critics accuse the Rajapaksa government, which successfully concluded a ruthless campaign against the decades-old Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009, of embracing a particularly virulent strain of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. That has at least indirectly led to the sort of climate where far-right Buddhist nationalists, including monks, have carried out attacks on both Muslims and Christians in recent years.

Like the militancy found in other Buddhist majoritarian states, such as Burma, it's a far cry from the peaceful, idyllic faith Coleman and other Western devotees seek to practice.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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