| by Manik De Silva
( May 4, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Despite the cliché being worn threadbare, the validity of the saying that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing remains true for Sri Lanka. This explains the red faces at Sri Lanka Tourism and the somewhat clumsy though well intentioned attempt at damage control following the recent peremptory deportation of British Tourist Naomi Coleman because she had a Buddha tattoo on her upper arm. Coleman, professionally a mental health nurse, would surely have thought that many of her patients are saner than the clutch of Lankan officialdom responsible for this act of crass stupidity. Unfortunately a magistrate too had taken the easy way out by ordering the deportation although he had said that it was not possible to interpret tourist’s intentions in having such a tattoo on her person. The deportation had been justified by the court as a measure to avoid any conflict in society.
Commonsense would surely have dictated that the lady could have been cautioned to keep the tattoo covered because there are people in this land of Bodu Bala Sena who might have been offended by it. In fact she had offered to do so, she had said. The police are on record saying that the woman had been arrested under a Penal Code section that makes it an offence to insult the religion or religious beliefs of any class of person with ``deliberate or malicious intention’’ by words either spoken or written. This self-same police have been accused of being passive onlookers when some mosques and places of worship of certain Christian denominations had been attacked not so long ago. At least in one instance some persons in yellow robes (we will not deign to call them Buddhist monks) had led the attack. Whether such acts, no doubt accompanied by the yelling of frenzied slogans and suchlike, do not fall four square within various provisions of the Penal Code requires interpretation for the further guidance of law enforcers. It is our understanding that an accused person is entitled to the benefit of any doubt. Thus, if the magistrate could not interpret Coleman’s intentions, should he have issued a deportation order?
Sri Lanka Tourism bought the lady a business class ticket to go home after her traumatic experience. SLT obviously understood the implications of this kind of incident for a country which has put many of its economic eggs in the tourism basket. It has said they would be happy to welcome Coleman back to the country, presumably as their guest, to make good her aborted holiday. She was quoted in the British press saying that tourism officials had told her that the whole sorry business should never have happened. All it did was to make an innocent holidaymaker and her family suffer a lot of unnecessary trauma and earn the country a blast of negative publicity in the British press and elsewhere; and this is a country that attracts many British visitors. Ironically the victim was a Buddhist who had been on meditation retreats to Thailand, India, Cambodia and Nepal. As Ven. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Sangha Nayake of America and the International Religious Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka has said in an article, Coleman meant no offense to anyone. ``On the contrary, she only wanted to honour her master teacher with an outward symbol of her belief. For our immigration officials and judicial system to perceive her mark of faith as offensive and defamatory, we do nothing but demonstrate our lack of skillfulness and compassion in recognizing other cultures’ perceptions and outward representation.’’
Unless some kind of corrective process has already begun, as it should have, to educate concerned officialdom how to act in this and similar circumstances, it is urgent that such a procedure is immediately launched. There are also ancillary matters requiring follow-up. Coleman has alleged that a male prison guard had sexually harassed her making all kinds of lewd remarks. She had further alleged that there had been attempt to get money off her. Those familiar with the way things happen here will not be surprised at these accusations. Thankfully, something seems to be happening regarding these because there was one report quoting Coleman saying while she was at the Mirihana detention center, police had talked to her regarding what she had alleged, recorded a statement and said these matters would be investigated. It is clear that there had been a delay in getting her consular assistance from the British High Commission in Colombo which should have been promptly informed of a matter like this. That could have taken the edge off what she had suffered. We have long had a tourist police and it is inexplicable that it was not brought into the picture. We do not know whether there is a tourist police post at the Katunayake airport and if there is none, at least a tourist policeman on duty there.
About a year ago there was a similar incident involving a transit passenger with a two day visa for Sri Lanka who had been found with a Buddha tattoo on his arm at Katunayake. He had not been subject to the horror that Coleman was victim of, but had been questioned by immigration, detained for ninety minutes and sent off to Malaysia where he was headed. So we are not entirely without experience in such matters. There have, of course, been cases of rank bad taste of tourists getting themselves photographed in front of Buddha images and one instance where some scantily clad women were photographed dancing in front of Buddha statues. The Dalada Maligawa provides sarongs to inappropriately clad tourists entering its precincts to cover up before they are admitted. In many of these matters what is required is commonsense, tact and officials not prone to throw their weight around. Given those ingredients, incidents like that which Coleman suffered can be avoided. BBC has reported that she intends taking legal action ``so that others will not suffer the same experience.’’ We must admit to a comedy of errors in this instance which was certainly not funny for the victim. Why she wasn’t allowed to go to the Maldives where she was booked to continue her holiday is also inexplicable. The powers that be had insisted she must return to her own country.
( The writer is the editor of the Sunday Island, weekly based in Colombo, where this piece was originally appeared.)