CHAUNG-U, Sagaing Division — Attacked by the clergy, shunned by his party and remanded in custody for six months after he was denied bail, the ongoing saga of Htin Lin Oo reached its nadir on Tuesday when the prominent columnist was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor.
His crime was to argue, in front of a literary festival audience last October, that discrimination on racial and religious grounds was incompatible with the central tenets of Buddhism.
Htin Lin Oo had spent the previous six months in custody for a trial under the Penal Code’s Article 295a, which prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”, and Article 298, which proscribes “uttering words […] with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings”.
The Chaung-U Township Court on Tuesday found the former information officer for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) guilty of the first charge and issued the maximum sentence allowable under the law. He was acquitted on the lesser charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 12 months, due to insufficient evidence.
“What I said was for love and peace between different communities with different faiths,” said Htin Lin Oo outside the court, after the day’s proceedings had concluded. “I received two years’ imprisonment for that, but I won, because I can reveal the people behind all of these haters. From my case, the whole country now knows who is the black hand behind the scenes.”
Around 50 members of the Buddhist nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha, were present outside the court on Tuesday, along with around 30 nationalist monks. Similar nationalist crowds had been present outside the courthouse during Htin Lin Oo’s earlier appearances. Lin Min Tun arrived at court with a security escort, and about 20 police officers were stationed outside the building to keep order.
“As everyone has seen the situation of the court, I doubt the court too stressed about this case,” said defense lawyer Thein Than Oo. “The case was suitable for bail but because of pressure from every direction, the bail was denied.”
While handing down the sentence, Judge Lin Min Tun said that Htin Lin Oo’s speech had not been directed at a section of the clergy but had deliberately defamed the entire Buddhist religion. As he was led away, the author said that pointing out which members of the Buddhist clergy he was referring to during the speech would have been redundant, as it was already common knowledge.
“If I have to point them out, I can,” he said. “Everyone already knows who they are, too. I didn’t name them [in the speech] to avoid unnecessary chaos.”
Htin Lin Oo will return to Monywa Prison to serve his sentence, less the six months already spent in remand. His family and Thein Than Oo are preparing an appeal for the Sagaing Divisional Court.
Amnesty International issued a statement on Thursday labeling the columnist a prisoner of conscience and calling for his immediate release.
“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar and should be overturned immediately,” said Rupert Abbott, the Amnesty research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Htin Lin Oo did nothing but give a speech promoting religious tolerance.”
“This is a sad indication of how Myanmar continues to rely on a range of draconian laws to silence and lock up critical voices. Despite promises to clear the country’s jails of prisoners of conscience, arrests of peaceful activists have actually picked up pace alarmingly over the past two years,” he added.
Htin Lin Oo was widely condemned on social media last November after a 10-minute excerpt of a speech delivered to 500 people at a literary event in Chaung-U.
“Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan, not Karen—so if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism,” he said at the time.
A statement from the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union released on Nov. 15 called on NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take responsibility for the speech, warning that it had the potential to tarnish the opposition party’s image.
Following an internal party investigation, Htin Lin Oo was relieved of his position as NLD information officer. He was later expelled from the party.
Nyan Win and Nan Khin Htwe Myint, the official spokespersons of the NLD, had their phones switched off on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment on Htin Lin Oo’s conviction.
In December, Htin Lin Oo was placed into custody after an official from Chaung-U Township’s Department of Immigration filed a formal complaint with the local police station. He was denied bail during a Dec. 17 court hearing.
On Jan. 17, the author prostrated himself before the Chaung-U clergy, a gesture of reconciliation that was accepted by the head of the local Sangha but failed to persuade the original complainant, Tun Khaing, to withdraw the charges.
Htin Lin Oo’s conviction is the second prominent religious offense conviction so far this year, following the prison sentences handed down to New Zealand National Philip Blackwood and his Burmese business partners Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin in Rangoon’s infamous V Gastro Bar case in March. Buddhist nationalist monks and Ma Ba Tha members were regular fixtures outside the trio’s court appearances.
Failing a successful appeal, Htin Lin Oo will remain in Monywa Prison until December 2017.
Additional reporting by Sean Gleeson in Rangoon.