A Myanmar court has jailed a New Zealand bar manager and two Burmese colleagues to two and a half years for insulting Buddhism, prompting international outcry from human rights organizations and fueling concern over the rise of Buddhist nationalism in the country.
Philip Blackwood, Tun Thurein, and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were arrested last December for a poster advertising a drinks event at their VGastro Bar in Yangon, on which Buddha was depicted wearing headphones. The image, which was posted on Facebook, triggered a complaint by an official from the country's religious department, which led to the arrest of the trio.
The three men pleaded not guilty, and while Blackwood had posted an apology for the image, Judge Ye Lwin said he had "intentionally plotted to insult religious belief" when he uploaded the image. The judge also commented hat it was "unreasonable only to blame the foreigner" when explaining the verdicts for the other two defendants. All three were sentenced to jail with labor, the court heard. Blackwood, who said he was "pretty disappointed" with his punishment, is planning to appeal the sentence.
Human rights organizations have called for the convictions to be overturned.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement: "By using the Religion Act to criminalize these three individuals, rather than accepting an apology and dealing with it in another way, the government is, sort of, setting up more witch hunts against persons that these Buddhist groups view as being insulting their religion."
"It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's Research Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.
"Today's verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar."
Human rights organizations have charted the rise of Buddhist nationalism, which has fueled religious intolerance against non-Buddhist groups, particularly the Rohingya Muslims, who have endured discrimination and violent attacks against their communities in Myanmar. Figures such as Ashin Wirathu, the radical monk and leader of the 969 movement who describes himself as the "Burmese Bin Laden," have whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment.
"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 UN official with truly offensive remarks," said Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.
In January, Wirathu called Yanghee Lee, a United Nations special rapporteur, a "bitch" and a "whore" when she criticized draft legislation proposed by ultra-nationalist groups in Myanmar, that would further marginalize the Rohingya Muslims. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said Wirathu's comments amounted to "incitement to hatred." The draft legislation includes laws on interfaith marriage and religious conversion, the latter requiring individuals wanting to change religion to seek a series of government permissions. According to Human Rights Watch, one of the draft laws was released to the public for consultation. 100 Burmese civil society groups wrote to protest the law, but the 969 movement denounced the groups, calling them "traitors."
Follow Jenna Corderoy on Twitter: @JennaCorderoy