Amnesty International has called on Burma’s authorities to immediately and unconditionally release three restaurant managers charged with insulting the Buddhist religion.
The managers of VGastro Bar in Rangoon’s Bahan Township were arrested and charged last week after the newly opened bar-restaurant posted online an advert for a promotional event, using an animated image of the Buddha wearing headphones. The picture prompted an instant backlash among many Buddhists who claimed the image was offensive.
The three – New Zealander Phil Blackwood, and Burmese Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin – are currently detained in Insein Prison and due to face trial in Rangoon, beginning on 26 December.
“The charges should be dropped and all three men should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, speaking to DVB on Friday. “While international human rights law and standards permit certain restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions are clearly defined and limited in scope. There is no way that the charges and prosecution in this case can meet the narrow human rights criteria for restricting the right to freedom expression, and therefore Myanmar is clearly violating this right.
“Pending their release, they must be granted full and unhindered access to their families and lawyers of their choosing and, where required, an interpreter,” he added.
The sentiment was backed by Phil Robertson, the deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, who slammed the verdict and called into question the “lynch mob mentality” that provoked the charges.
“Demanding respect for religion doesn’t justify criminalising free speech or abusing other rights, and it certainly doesn’t vindicate the apparent lynch mob mentality that the Ma-Ba-Tha [hardline Buddhist group] have towards these three persons,” he told DVB. “The provisions of the penal code they are charged under are overly broad and essentially allow the authorities to criminalise speech about religion without effective restriction — when what is really needed here is a reasoned discussion about freedom of expression and religion.
“All three should be immediately released on bail and allowed to defend themselves against these charges – and the fact that they immediately apologised and withdrew the offending materials should be considered sympathetically and taken into account.”
Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, said, “It is bizarre to be targeting men working in a small bar for insulting Buddhism, rather than targeting those responsible for shooting at monks and raiding monasteries to crush the uprising in 2007.”
The offending image was quickly taken down from the VGastro Bar Facebook page when the staff realised the negative impact it had caused. A profuse apology was offered by the management and the event that was being promoted cancelled.
Although many hardline Buddhists have called for severe punishments to be meted out to the three defendants, other monks have now stood up to call for forgiveness in view of the circumstances, saying that the offending material was clearly not meant to be insulting and the fact that the bar managers issued a full apology.
Ashin Sopaka, a highly revered monk and writer based in Monywa, called for the trio to be released in the spirit of Buddhist tolerance and forgiveness.
“I was thinking what would The Buddha say in this issue, and he would say: ‘It’s no problem, I forgive you, but please do not make such a mistake again’,” he wrote.