A court in Myanmar recently sentenced 32-year-old Phillip Blackwood, a tapas bar and lounge manager from New Zealand, and two of his business associates, 40-year-old Tun Thurein and 26-year-old Htut Ko Ko Lwin to two years and six months in prison after finding them guilty of having insulted Buddhism. The three were convicted on March 17 after they published a flyer on V Gastro Bar’s Facebook page last year, depicting Buddha wearing headphones. The conviction comes after the trio removed the ad from the bar’s social media page and posted an apology in its place.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, said while the trio did act in a culturally insensitive manner, they did not do anything so damaging to be sent to prison. Amnesty International, too, demanded for their conviction to be overturned immediately.
Judge Ye Lwin ruled despite Blackwood posting an apology, accusing him of intentionally plotting against Myanmar’s religious belief. Approximately half a dozen Buddhists and monks assembled outside Yangon court to hear Lwin’s verdict. Blackwood told the media however that he would appeal against the ruling.
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Amnesty International recently said the charges against 32-year-old New Zealander Philip Blackwood and two of his Myanmar associates, all of whom were accused of insulting Buddhism, have no basis in international law.
Blackwood appeared before a court in Myanmar on December 18 after being accused of insulting religion because he had used a picture of Buddha to promote an event at the bar he managed. He was refused bail last week, as were Myanmar nationals Tun Thurein, who owns the bar, and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, who manages it with Blackwood. Soon after the trio was led into Yangon court, a mob of hardline Buddhists assembled outside while two dozen police personnel stood close by to keep a watch.
The contentious poster, which featured a psychedelic Buddha wearing headphones, led to widespread protests across the country that has a majority Buddhist population and is, unfortunately, struggling with surging religious nationalism at the moment. The deejay-like Buddha picture offended as many believers in the country possibly because it was seen as warping the perception of Buddha’s general meditative and peaceful appeal. As soon as it sparked outrage however, VGastro Bar pulled down the picture from its Facebook page but by that time, the damage had already been done.
If found guilty of violating the country’s Religion Act, the trio could face lengthy jail terms. Under the act, any person that tries to insult, damage or destroy any religious symbol, can be penalized with a two-year jail term, with an additional two-years given to those that attempt to do the same through written words.
Blackwood’s wife, who also lives in Myanmar, was denied permission to meet with her husband at Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison.
Grant Bayldon, Amnesty’s New Zealand director, said the charges against Blackwood are disproportionate to his offence and urged that he be released from prison immediately. Bayldon drew attention to the number of unjust laws that are prevalent in Myanmar, saying the religious offense law is only one of them.
“There's absolutely no basis under international law for prosecuting people for something as trivial and as simple as this,” Bayldon said. “In fact, freedom of expression is a right that's enshrined in international law and should be respected.”
After the trio’s hearing, Blackwood’s lawyer Mya Thwe said the trio would have no right to appeal a guilty verdict. He said however, the good thing was that none of them had confessed as yet, before saying that the next hearing is on December 26.
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