Three Rangoon nightclub managers – New Zealander Phil Blackwood, and Burmese Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin – will face trial on charges of insulting Buddhism, a court in Bahan Township decided on Thursday.
A judge upheld charges under Penal Code articles 295, 295(a) and 188 against the trio, who are accused of religious offenses after posting an image of Buddha wearing headphones on social media as part of a promotion for the newly opened VGastro Bar.
The three were denied bail and a trial date was set for 26 December.
Under Burma’s Religion Act – article 295 – anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be sentenced to a maximum of two years in jail, with another two years for insulting religion through the written word.
The Penal Code lists Article 188 as “Disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant.” No details have as yet been made clear as to why this additional charge was leveled at the three.
At least 20 Buddhist monks gathered outside the Bahan Township courthouse. Other observers wore t-shirts with “969” logos, indicating support for the hardline Buddhist organisation led by extremist monk Wirathu.
The three bar managers were arrested last week and denied bail. New Zealander Blackwood experienced difficulty in attaining legal representation with four lawyers declining to take the case on grounds that it was too sensitive.
One of the lawyers, who requested anonymity, told Blackwood’s family that he had decided against representing him after the police in Bahan Township advised him against it.
A friend of Blackwood told DVB on Wednesday that the family had finally acquired legal representation.
Phil Robertson, the deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, blasted the verdict and called for the three to be released on bail.
“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.”
However, several Burmese monks have called for tough action.
“I believe that the [VGastro Bar management] intentionally insulted Buddhism,” said U Zawana, a prominent monk based in Rangoon. “Buddhism is prevalent in this country and everyone has the utmost respect for the Buddha. They [bar managers] did a very inappropriate thing by using the image of Buddha in an advertisement like this.
“I think they deserve punishment for insulting the Buddhist religion. In fact I feel that the current charge they are facing – Article 295 – is too light. They should receive a harsher charge if one is available.”
The furore unfolded on 10 December after the newly opened bar-restaurant posted on its Facebook page an advert for a promotional event, using an animated image of the Buddha wearing headphones, a motive that is commonly used by the Buddha Bar franchise across the world.
However, the picture quickly garnered shock and outrage on Burmese social media, with some calling it “an insult to Buddhism”.
The club owners took the advert down the same evening but a mob gathered outside their venue in Bahan Township’s upmarket Green Valley neighbourhood, calling for action against the nightclub.
Monks from the local Association of Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known as the Ma-ba-tha, a fundamentalist Buddhist organisation closely associated with 969, were prominent at the protest.
Police intervened to calm the situation, and several protestors were heard calling, “Hand over the foreigner!” and “Let’s lynch them!”