Myanmar court convicts all three defendants in Buddha bar case

Philip Blackwood, a New Zealand bar manager, is taken to prison after being sentenced to two and a half years in prison. PHOTO/COCONUTS MEDIA

New Zealander Philip Blackwood and Myanmar nationals Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were all convicted of insulting religious belief on Tuesday, several months after the three were arrested in December for posting a photo on Facebook of the Buddha wearing headphones to promote a cheap drinks night at VGastro pub, their bar in Yangon.
 
The presiding judge said the entire group should be held responsible for the act and sentenced them to two and a half years each in prison, according to the BBC, continuing the monthslong nightmare for the men. Media reports in the lead-up to the trial suggested the trio could face up to four years in prison.

The New York Times reported that the first two years of the sentence dealt with the Buddha image, while the six months were added for illegally operating a bar after 10pm. The ruling includes “hard labour.”
 
Blackwood, the 32-year-old general manager, had previously admitted to posting the photo, but said he meant no offense. Despite an apology and the deletion of the image, religious outrage quickly spread. The three were arrested and pled not guilty.

Weeks ago, Thurein, 40, made a special appeal on behalf of himself and Ko Ko Lwin, the bar’s 26-year-old manager, but the court appears to have found them all equally culpable

“It was not my instruction. I wasn’t involved at all. We are not guilty,” Thurein told the court in early March, AFP reported. He asked for the release of himself and Ko Ko Lwin, but not for Blackwood.

Going into court on Tuesday morning, Blackwood told BBC’s Jonah Fisher that he hoped “justice” will be done.

One of the Burmese co-defendants told a Channel News Asia reporter earlier in the day that he thought his chances were fifty-fifty.

Buddhist nationalism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and analysts have connected the surge to the swift reaction by authorities against the three men.

Despite Blackwood’s statement that he never intended to cause offense, the judge in the case, Ye Lwin, said the New Zealand national had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” by posting the photo, but, explaining his decision to convict everyone, also said it was “unreasonable only to blame the foreigner,” according to AFP.

Blackwood’s parents in New Zealand told Fairfax Media that they were “absolutely gutted” by the decision.

“We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act which it was supposed to be,” his father, Brian, said. “We were hoping he would be found not guilty or at the very least deported.”

An appeal may be in the works, he added.

A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said in an email that “the Ministry is aware of the court appearance and sentencing of Philip Blackwood in Myanmar on 17 March,” and “the New Zealand Embassy in Yangon has been in contact with Mr Blackwood and his family and are providing consular advice and assistance.”

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said that while the image was obviously offensive, the punishment did not fit the crime. He urged the court to release the men.

“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,” he said in a statement.

“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.”

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