Day 6

Myanmar protestors are donning tattoos in opposition to ongoing military coup

According to reports, some demonstrators are signalling their dissent against the ongoing military coup that began Feb. 1 by tattooing symbols of resistance, including politician Aung San Suu Kyi, on their bodies.

Tattooing has a long cultural heritage in Myanmar, says expert

A man receives a tattoo of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in protest over the military coup at a tattoo parlour in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, on Feb. 10, 2021. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

For the past month, protestors armed with little more than signs, megaphones and a refusal to accept anything less than democratic leadership have taken to streets in Myanmar's largest cities to express dissent against an ongoing military coup that began on Feb. 1.

According to news reports, however, protestors have also adopted a culturally significant form of resistance to challenge the military junta: Tattoos.

"There are reports that folks are tattooing symbols of Saya San, the rebel from 1930s … as well as symbols of the Garuda, which are symbols known by Burmese society as the sort of idealized [rebellion]," said Maitrii Aung-Thwin, in an interview with Day 6

Aung-Thwin, an associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore, and the deputy director of the school's Asia Research Institute, added that protestors are also getting tattoos of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Burmese politician, and former state councillor whose political cachet in the west has declined due to her refusal to condemn the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

She was deposed as state counsellor, and detained by the military junta during the coup, despite her National League of Democracy party winning the country's 2020 general election. 

A protester with a back tattoo of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi pictured during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb. 8, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

History of tattoos as social markers — and forms of resistance

Like in many southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia and Thailand, tattoos have a long cultural history in Myanmar. 

"In Myanmar, actually, it was used by the state, it was used by everyday peoples and in their everyday lives," Aung-Thwin said. 

"For instance, someone might gain a tattoo as a medicinal practice to protect oneself from snakebite or from disease or from broken arms."

He added that tattoos in medicinal contexts can be compared to the way "that we might go for a vaccination or inoculation from chicken pox and measles."

At the same time, tattoos could also denote social status. Monks, soldiers and state officials would all be tattooed in ways that signified their roles in Burmese society. 

A Myanmar migrant in Thailand shows off a new tattoo of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they protest against the military coup in their home country. (LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)

The introduction of British colonial rule in the 19th century, however, changed the way that tattoos were perceived, not necessarily by Burmese citizens, but by their colonial rulers.

"Colonial authorities mainly dismissed them at the best of times, and said … this practice is really something that is very backward, uncivilized and so forth," Aung-Thwin explained. 

As colonial powers attempted to force Burmese citizens to adhere to imperial values, however, Aung-Thwin says that Burmese practices became a kind of "rallying cry" for nationalists who wanted to oppose the colonialist system "or who wanted to change the colonial system."

"Tattooing came to have a political connotation, and that started to worry British authorities," he added.

The British criminalized tattoos, and even Burmese citizens who had tattoo marks were considered part of the rebellion.

During the Saya San Rebellion in the 1930s — one of the biggest rebellions in Burmese history, and one that arose from frustration with a generation of British rule — Aung-Thwin said that "many of the so-called rebels who were detained and caught were [arrested] on the basis of being identified with tattoos."

Among the most prominent resistance tattoos at the time were images of tigers; mythical bird-like creatures known as Garuda devouring a dragon, representing the Burmese rebelling against the British; and words or phrases important to Burmese culture and spirituality.

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Wearing rebellion

So in 2021, during yet another moment of political upheaval in Myanmar, the fact that protestors are now tattooing images of Saya San is something that Aung-Thwin finds difficult to separate from cultural and historical context. 

"For scholars who study the body as a representation of society, you can see how they can connect — how the social body and the people around them are protesting through their resistance on the streets, but they're also showing on their own individual bodies [signs] of resistance or protest," he said. 

As for the image of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung-Thwin says western audiences need to understand that the politician and resistance leader remains a person of almost divine importance to Burmese residents, as well as the Burmese resistance movement. 

"Just like certain other types of images — whether it be images of monks or images of the Buddha or other types of religious prayers or chants — would sometimes be adopted by people to protect themselves, in a sense, you could argue that some people may see [Aung San Suu Kyi] as doing much the same thing," said Aung-Thwin. 

He added that Suu Kyi herself isn't necessarily the one encouraging protestors to view her in a spiritual way. 

"She is a savvy politician and she said, 'I've always been a politician,' in her own writings,'" Aung-Thwin said. "But I think she's a complicated figure."

Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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