NZ bar manager arrested in Myanmar over promo showing Buddha wearing headphones

YANGON (AFP) - A New Zealand bar manager is due to appear in a Myanmar court on Thursday after he was arrested for allegedly insulting religion by using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in a promotion, the police said.

The promotional poster, which appeared on the bar's Facebook page, sparked outrage on social media in the predominantly Buddhist nation, which has seen a surge in religious nationalism in recent months.

General manager Philip Blackwood, 32, owner Tun Thurein, 40, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, were detained for police questioning on Wednesday and the bar was shuttered after a complaint by an official from Myanmar's Religious Department, the police said.

The posting for the newly opened V Gastro bar, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in a Yangon embassy area, showed a psychedelic mock-up of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones to trail a cheap drinks night this Sunday. "According to Mr Philip's statement, they were trying to promote the bar. Buddha grabs people's interest... however Buddhists cannot accept it," a police official in Yangon's Bahan township told reporters late on Wednesday.

"This insults the religion. So we opened the case under the Religion Act. We will file a lawsuit," he said, requesting not to be named.

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

The New Zealander is due to appear in a Yangon court on Thursday where he may be charged and deported, the police official told AFP.

A small group of locals protested outside the bar on Wednesday night, another police source said, requesting anonymity.

After criticism erupted the bar - which opened just two weeks ago - deleted the post and wrote an apology on the Facebook page.

"VGastro management would like to express our sincere regret if we have offended the citizens of this wonderful city, who have welcomed us so warmly and generously," it said.

"Our intention was never to cause offence to anyone or toward any religious group. Our ignorance is embarrassing."

But the apology attracted a slew of angry comments from Burmese social media users including one saying "Shame on you!", while another decried the bar management as "utterly unprofessional and culturally insensitive".

The incident comes as the country grapples with a growing Buddhist nationalist movement spearheaded by extremist monks, who have urged boycotts of Muslim shops and proposed a raft of deeply controversial laws to restrict religious freedom.