The sentencing of writer and former-National League for Democracy (NLD) member Htin Lin Oo to two years’ imprisonment has been met with criticism from international and domestic observers.
Htin Lin Oo was arrested for an impassioned speech in which he panned Buddhist hardliners for stoking inter-religious tensions in the country. On Tuesday, a Magwe court sentenced him to two years with labour for ‘defaming religion’ and ‘hurting religious feelings’.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called the sentence “appalling”, and highlighted the irony in prosecuting someone for preaching tolerance when hate speech and violence abound.
“U Htin Lin Oo courageously spoke out against the use of Buddhism as a tool for extremism. His treatment and conviction are in stark contrast to the treatment of those in Myanmar [Burma] who are clearly inciting violence against minority communities, particularly the Rohingya,” said Wednesday’s OHCHR statement.
“Rather than prosecuting individuals, who brazenly call for the Rohingya to be killed, for hate speech and incitement to violence, the authorities have jailed a peaceful advocate who dared to question the misuse and manipulation of religion for extremist ends.
“We urge the authorities to release U Htin Lin Oo unconditionally and to take all necessary measures to ensure that those who conduct peaceful advocacy, legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, do not face reprisals,” the statement went on to say.
United State Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski said that he was “deeply concerned” by the sentencing, and that tolerance is a necessary part of Burma’s democratic reform process.
The Chaung-U court in Magwe Division which handed down the sentence has been the site of regular congregations by members of the hardline Buddhist group, Ma-Ba-Tha, officially known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, which Htin Lin Oo criticised in a speech in October of last year.
Asked to comment on the sentencing, Bo Gyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma told DVB that “Htin Lin Oo should not have been detained for expressing his opinions in the first place. The government should be taking steps to stop extremist Buddhist groups pressuring the judiciary or the impartiality of the court system. It is clear that his arrest is prejudiced.”
Bo Gyi joined OHCHR in pointing out the disparity between the government’s approach to those who speak critically, saying: “The government allows religious hardliners to discredit and publicly disgrace opposition voices. They are attempting to damage their credibility among the people by using religious positions to influence the public view. By doing so, the government believe they will cause the opposition to lose support in the upcoming election.”
The controversy ignited in October when Htin Lin Oo addressed a crowd in Sagaing Division, saying: “They [the Ma-Ba-Tha] claim to teach the dharma but they do vile things – they yell and shout, and preach lies and prejudice to the people – and I am absolutely disgusted by them.”
“One thing for sure is that the Lord Buddha was not Burmese, or Shan or Kachin or Karen or Chin or Arakanese – he wasn’t from one of the ethnicities of Burma. Brothers and sisters, are you aware of this? If you really love your race, then don’t follow his religion. He is not of our race,” he said.
Following the furore caused by his speech, Htin Linn Oo was removed from his post as NLD information officer.