Myanmar bar owner says New Zealander responsible for Buddha ad

Philip Blackwood (centre) arrives for his hearing at a court in Yangon on Dec 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Philip Blackwood (centre) arrives for his hearing at a court in Yangon on Dec 18, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 

YANGON (AFP) - The Myanmar owner of a Yangon bar accused of insulting Buddhism in a drinks promotion told the court Tuesday the New Zealand bar manager was responsible for the offending ad that could see them jailed for up to four years.

Philip Blackwood, a general manager of the VGastro bar in Yangon, has been held in the city's notorious Insein prison along with the bar's owner and manager, both Myanmar nationals, since posting the offending mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones in December.

The poster triggered outrage in the Buddhist majority country, which is witnessing a surge in religious nationalism, and led to the arrest of the 32-year-old along with Tun Thurein, the bar's 40-year-old owner, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, for insulting religion.

Bar owner Tun Thurein made a personal appeal to the court Tuesday, saying Blackwood was responsible for the Facebook posting.

"It was not my instruction. I wasn't involved at all. We are not guilty," he told the court, asking for the release of himself and the manager.

The trio face up to four years in jail if found guilty of breaching the Religion Act with the contentious poster, which was quickly withdrawn from the bar's Facebook page as the furore erupted.

"The verdict will be given at 12 pm (1:30pm Singapore time) on Tuesday 17 March," court judge Ye Lwin said on Tuesday.

Under the act, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who insult religion through the written word.

Delivering his final arguments, Blackwood's lawyer Mya Thway said his client had "no intention" of insulting religion and was simply promoting a cheap drinks night, reiterating a statement made by the New Zealander at an earlier hearing.

"I ask for the acquittal and release of Mr Philip," the lawyer told the court.

VGastro, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket neighbourhood of Yangon, was shut shortly after the poster came to light, despite a Facebook apology by management for their "ignorance" in using the Buddha's image.

After the hearing, a member of Blackwood's family who did not wish to be named, said: "We trust the justice (system) in Myanmar... We are hoping for the best."