A new campaign for Myanmar led by the son of imprisoned democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Kim Aris, is using tattoos as a publicity tool to raise humanitarian aid for the millions displaced following the 2021 military coup.
People in Myanmar's diaspora are getting tattoos of a Burmese water dragon as a symbol of solidarity with the ongoing resistance movement inside Myanmar. And they are sharing pictures and videos of their tattoos and the associated live fundraising events on social media to create a buzz around the symbolic tattoo, and drive participants to its GoFundMe page.
A military junta overturned Myanmar's election in February 2021 and arrested the leaders of the democratically elected government, including longtime democracy activist Suu Kyi. Thousands have been killed in the ensuing violence.
Aris, who himself just got a tattoo of the Burmese water dragon and shared a video of the procedure on the campaign’s Facebook page, told VOA that the dragon motif is a traditional symbol from Burmese culture and was inspired by the tattoo worn by famous Burmese kickboxer Too Too, who lost his life in prison along with many other political prisoners arrested during anti-coup protests.
"He represents a great deal of what has happened to many people in Burma," Aris told VOA. "His body was never returned to his family, and it's said he was tortured before he died. This has happened to many people in Burma.
"My mother has spoken often about freedom — freedom from fear — and the fact that nobody will be free until everybody is free," Aris said. "There's a long way to go until that happens, but I hope it can be sooner rather than later, and that this campaign can help it happen."
The campaign, called "Freedom Tattoo for Burma Aid," has taken off internationally since its launch October 30.
According to Aris, it has raised nearly $126,000 in donations from around the world, including donations from the United Kingdom, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States. Those who do not get the dragon tattoo are urged by campaign organizers to make donations through their GoFundMe page. From there, the funds are distributed to charities inside the country.
"We’re working with trusted charities who are actually on the ground in Burma, who can get the aid to where it’s needed. We can’t name them as it makes their work very difficult," Aris told VOA.
Organizers of a November 22 campaign event in Thailand shut it down early, citing in a statement "unforeseen circumstances involving pressure from the Myanmar military on Thai authorities."
Aris expressed his disappointment in the shutdown. "It's very sad to hear about the Thais stopping an event like this, which is purely for humanitarian aid," he said.
Aris said he recognizes that a major challenge of his campaign is getting international attention.
"It's very hard to get the attention of the international media at present," he said. "The way things are in the world, Burma gets pushed further and further back."
Despite the challenges, Aris said he still has hope that his campaign can bring more awareness of what is happening in Myanmar to the wider world.
"I thought a tattoo would be something interesting," he said.
"It's not like someone going for a marathon or a walk, it's something different. I thought it might get a bit more attention outside the Burmese community."