The three managers of VGastro nightclub in Rangoon – New Zealander Phil Blackwood and his Burmese partners, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin – have been found guilty of defaming religion at a court in Bahan Township, and each sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment with hard labour.
Blackwood’s lawyer Mya Thwe told DVB that the trio had been found guilty under Burmese Penal Code articles 295(a) and 188. They could have been handed a maximum sentence of four years each.
The charges stem from an incident in December when Blackwood posted a promotional advert on the bar-restaurant’s Facebook page depicting an image of the Buddha wearing headphones.
The posting was circulated widely in Rangoon and drew howls of protest from Buddhists, claiming it was insulting and in bad taste. The post was quickly deleted and an apology issued, but a crowd gathered outside the bar, calling for action. Among the crowd were local monks from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, commonly known as the Ma-Ba-Tha, a fundamentalist Buddhist organisation closely associated with extremist monk Wirathu’s 969 movement.
Reaction to Tuesday’s verdict was swift and scathing.
Phil Robertson, the deputy-director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said, “That these three men acted in a culturally insensitive way by posting the Buddha with headphones image on Facebook is obvious, but that is nothing they should have been hauled into court for, much less sent to prison.
“What this shows is freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma [Myanmar] just as the country heads into a pivotal election 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, and the Religion Act should be amended to bring it into compliance with international human rights standards.”
In December, Amnesty International also called for the charges to be dropped.
“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 directly to DVB. “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 of expression, and therefore Myanmar is clearly violating this right.”
In early March, DVB launched a poll, asking readers: “Do the nightclub managers of VGastro Bar deserve to be jailed for their alleged crime of insulting Buddhism?”
Over 90 percent said no.