YANGON (AFP, REUTERS) - A New Zealand bar manager and his two Myanmar colleagues were sentenced on Tuesday to two and a half years in jail with labour by a Yangon court over using a Buddha image to promote a cheap drinks night.
Philip Blackwood, who worked at the VGastro bar in Yangon, was found guilty of insulting religion along with the bar’s Myanmar owner Tun Thurein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, after the New Zealander posted the offending mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones on Facebook.
All had pleaded not guilty.
The trio were sentenced to two years in jail for insulting religion through written word or pictures and a further six months – both terms carrying the punishment of hard labour – for breaching a local order including when a protest erupted outside the bar over the image posted in December.
Judge Ye Lwin said that although Philip Blackwood posted an apology, he had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the image. The ad triggered a minor storm of controversy in Myanmar, where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
The case comes amid a surge in Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar – which emerged in 2011 from half a century of military rule – with monks forming groups aimed at promoting the country’s Buddhist character.
Rights groups condemned the verdict as an assault on freedom of expression and called for the release of the three. “The authorities are clearly trying to make an example with this case, but ironically all it has done is hurt the image of Myanmar and Buddhism,” said Matt Smith, executive director of the Bangkok-based group Fortify Rights.
Police bundled Blackwood out of court into a vehicle after the verdict and he did not comment to reporters.
Some people have compared the case with recent remarks made by a prominent monk and Buddhist nationalist, Wirathu, who called a U.N. human rights envoy a “whore”.
A senior monk and an official in the Religious Affairs Ministry told Reuters in January that Wirathu’s remark could harm Buddhism. He has not been charged.
At a hearing in December, Blackwood said he had not intended to offend Buddhism when he posted the image on the bar’s Facebook page to advertise a cheap drinks night.
He said he had removed the image and posted an apology when he realised it was being shared online and provoking outrage.
“These men expressed contrition for what they said was a mistake, but meanwhile extremists like Wirathu have incited violence in the name of Buddhism and publicly attacked a senior U.N. official with truly offensive remarks,” Mr Smith said.
Myanmar’s semi-civilian government has lifted restrictions on freedom of speech, association and media, but reforms have been accompanied by a rise in Buddhist nationalism.
The main target of the nationalist movement has been Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people. Sectarian violence since June 2012 has killed at least 240 people, most of them Muslims.
Parliament is due to debate laws, including regulations on religious conversions and interfaith marriages, which were initially proposed by a Committee to Protect Race and Religion, one of the main Buddhist nationalist groups associated with Wirathu.