Myanmar: 'Buddha bar' guilty verdict another blow to freedom of expression
Photo: Myanmar police stand guard outside a court during the hearing of a New Zealand bar manager at a courtroom in Yangon. © Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
The conviction and prison sentence handed down today against two managers and the owner of a bar in Myanmar for displaying an image of the Buddha wearing headphones should be overturned immediately and is a chilling indication of the growing climate of religious intolerance in the country, Amnesty International said.
Tun Thurein and Htut Ko KoLwin from Myanmar and Philip Blackwood from New Zealand were today imprisoned for “insulting religion”. The charges stem back to December 2014 when the Buddha image was used to promote their Yangon bar online.
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.
“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 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.”
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.
“The shrinking space for religious freedom in Myanmar is deeply worrying, as is the growing influence of rhetoric by hardline Buddhist nationalist groups. Authorities should do all they can to reverse this disturbing trend – not seek to inflame the situation further by pursuing cases like this,” said Rupert Abbott.
The case against Tun Thurein, Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Philip Blackwood comes amid growing religious tensions in Myanmar. National and international NGOs have raised concerns about hardline Buddhist groups using inflammatory language to incite hostility, violence and discrimination. However, the authorities have yet to take concrete action to address the growing use of hate speech.
On 4 December 2014 writer Htin Lin Oo was also charged with “insulting religion” by the Chaung-U Township Court in Sagaing Region after he criticized the use of Buddhism as a tool for discrimination in a speech at a literary event. He is currently on trial and faces up to three years in prison.