The New Zealand manager of VGastro Bar in Yangon and his two Myanmar business associates have been jailed for two years and six months for insulting Buddhism over an online Facebook advertisement showing a picture of Buddha wearing headphones.
Mr Philip Blackwood, 32, U Tun Thurein and U Htut Ko Ko Lwin were given hard labour for insulting religion, plus six months for disobeying an order from a public servant.
According to a media report, Mr Blackwood shouted to a reporter as he was leaving the court that he would appeal.
Local rights groups have been noticeably quiet following the arrest of the three men and the lawyer for the accused was subject to death threats.
Ahead of the sentencing, one of the accused told media that Mr Blackwood was solely responsible for putting up the Facebook cover photo and that his two business associates were unaware of the posting until the public outcry. Mr Blackwood promptly took down the image in the wake of the outcry.
Amnesty International was quick to condemn what it called “another blow to freedom of expression.”
“It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Mr Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s research director for South East Asia and the Pacific.
“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar. While international human rights law permits 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 this right under international human rights law.”
Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, also expressed concern over the sentencing.
“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,” he said
Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told Mizzima: “This conviction is all about the government playing to Buddhist nationalists ahead of the election. How can posting an image of Buddha wearing headphones on Facebook be considered defaming Buddhism, but shooting and torturing monks and attacking monasteries in 2007 isn’t?”
Mr Farmaner refers to the harsh treatment by Myanmar authorities of Buddhist monks active during street protests in 2007.
Myanmar has seen a disturbing rise in religious intolerance in recent years, often fuelled by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups, leading to increased hostility and discrimination against non-Buddhists and Muslims in particular.