YANGON, Myanmar >> A bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese men were sentenced to two years in prison in Myanmar on Tuesday for posting an image online of the Buddha wearing headphones, an effort to promote an event.
The court in Yangon said the image denigrated Buddhism and was a violation of Myanmar’s religion act, which prohibits insulting, damaging or destroying religion. "It is clear the act of the bar offended the majority religion in the country," said the judge, Ye Lwin.
The image was posted in December on the Facebook page of the VGastro bar and restaurant in Yangon. After an outcry from hard-line Buddhist groups, the police arrested the restaurant’s general manager, Philip Blackwood, 32, of New Zealand, along with the bar owner, Tun Thurein, 40, and the manager, Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26. The three have been held in Insein prison, in Yangon.
In addition to the two-year prison term for violating the religion act, the three were also sentenced to six months for illegally operating a bar after 10 p.m. Blackwood said after the verdict that the men had expected they would be convicted.
The case has added to growing concerns about religious and ethnic intolerance in majority-Buddhist Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where Muslims have faced increasing discrimination and violence. Hundreds of people were killed in sectarian violence in western and central Myanmar in 2012 and 2013. The country’s Parliament is also considering new laws that critics fear will be used to discriminate against minorities.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who is based in Bangkok, called the verdict "outrageous."
"This is a clear instance of criminalizing free expression," he said. "This will resonate in a very significant, negative way internationally when people decide how to engage with Burma."
The three convicted men faced possible prison terms of as long as four years in connection with the image, which was posted on the bar’s Facebook page. The image was quickly removed, and the bar issued an apology, saying it had not intended to cause offense.
"Our ignorance is embarrassing for us, and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar’s religions, culture and history, characteristics that make this such a rich and unique society," the apology said.
The online image of the Buddha wearing headphones was flanked by the name of the Yangon bar and restaurant and the words "Buddha.bar," an echo of the franchise that was founded in Paris in 1996 and is famous for its electronic music mixes. The franchise has run into occasional problems for its use of depictions of the Buddha. In 2010, a Buddha Bar in Jakarta, Indonesia, was forced to close after protests from Buddhists there.
Myanmar will hold a general election this fall, and rights groups say the blasphemy conviction is an indicator that the government is pandering to hard-line Buddhist groups to win votes.
"Not only is this a rights violation, but this is very ill advised from a political and social perspective," Robertson said. "Burma is heading into dangerous territory."