, Yangon, Mar 17 – A New Zealand bar manager and his two Myanmar colleagues were sentenced Tuesday to two and a half years in jail by a Yangon court for using a Buddha image to promote a cheap drinks night.
The ad posted on Facebook in December triggered outrage in the former junta-ruled country, where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
Philip Blackwood, who worked at the VGastro bar in Yangon, was found guilty of insulting religion along with the bar’s Myanmar owner and manager, after the New Zealander posted the offending mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones.
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 local authority regulations.
They were held responsible for protests that erupted outside the bar over the image.
Judge Ye Lwin said that although Blackwood, 32, posted an apology, he had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the photo.
He added that it was “unreasonable only to blame the foreigner” when explaining the guilty verdicts for the 40-year-old bar owner Tun Thurein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26.
The trio during the trial all denied insulting religion, while Blackwood admitted posting the picture without intending to offend.
The New Zealander made no comment as he was bundled into the back of a police truck through a scrum of media cameras after the sentencing.
Htut Ko Ko Lwin’s mother screamed at a group of monks waiting outside the court and taking photos with smartphones.
“I am very shocked and this is very unfair,” said Myat Nandar, wife of bar owner Tun Thurein, adding that she would consult her lawyer about appealing.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which began emerging from the grip of the military in 2011, has been rocked by several deadly outbreaks of religious violence in recent years, mainly targeting the Muslim minority.
The bloodshed has coincided with a rise in the popularity of hardline monks who have advocated controversial new laws. Rights groups say these would severely curb the freedom of religious minorities and women.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the sentences showed “freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever” in Myanmar, which is gearing up for crucial elections later this year.
“The authorities should accept the heartfelt public apology of the three men, vacate the conviction, and order them to be released immediately and unconditionally,” he said in a statement.
Blackwood’s parents told Fairfax Media from their New Zealand home that they were shocked by the decision and their son would consider an appeal.
“We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act…” said father Brian Blackwood.
VGastro, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket neighbourhood, was shut shortly after the contentious poster came to light, even though management quickly withdrew the ad and apologised for their “ignorance” in using the Buddha’s image.