Dutch Tourist Faces Jail Time for Insulting Religion

By Zarni Mann 28 September 2016

MANDALAY — A court in Mandalay’s Maha Aung Myay Township accepted a case against a Dutch tourist for violating visa regulations and insulting religion after he disrupted a Buddhist ritual last week.

The township’s immigration department and the leader of the Buddhist group that performed the ritual filed the case against 30-year-old Klaas Haijtema on Wednesday, after the tourist unplugged an amplifier used to enhance a Dhamma recitation by Buddhist devotees at the township’s Dhamma Yone community hall on Friday night. Haijtema was staying at the hotel opposite the hall.

The plaintiffs said the Dutch man did not take off his shoes when he entered the holy site and that he removed the wires from the PA system, disrupting the recitation that was held to mark the eve of a Buddhist Sabbath day.

During the trial on Wednesday, Klaas Haijtema said he was sorry for what he did and that he had not intended to disrupt a religious ceremony.

“I was not aware that the building was related to Buddhism. I was really tired that night and woke up to the noise. I was very angry, and assumed that children were playing music,” he told the court through a translator.

“So I went down to the building and unplugged the wires,” he added.

When asked for additional comments by The Irrawaddy, Klaas Haijtema said he had nothing further to add.

If he is found guilty under Section 13.1 of the Immigration Act, he could be given a minimum six-month to a maximum five-year sentence.  For insulting religion, he could also face a two-year sentence under Section 295 of Burma’s Penal Code. He is currently detained at Obo Prison in Mandalay.

Nearly 90 percent of the country’s population is Buddhist, and wearing shoes at holy sites and disrupting religious rituals can be regarded as an insult to the religion.

Klaas Haijtema is not the first foreigner to be charged for defaming Buddhism recently. Last year, Philip Blackwood, a New Zealander and bar manager in Burma, posted an offending photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones on Facebook to promote cheap drinks. He was given a two and a half year prison sentence but released with amnesty early this year.

The Dutch tourist’s case comes at a time when communities across Burma have criticized the overuse of PA systems for religious and business purposes.

People have complained about the blaring loudspeakers being used by Buddhist devotees and monks when asking for donations and performing religious rituals in the early morning and in the evening, as well as by Muslim calls to prayer coming from the mosques.

Despite Burma’s Ward and Village Tract Administration Law, which requires loudspeaker users to obtain a permit from the local authorities under the condition that they are “not to cause a public nuisance,” the regulations are rarely followed or enforced, especially when it comes to religion.

When the news about Klaas Haijtema broke, the case went viral on social media and attracted mixed criticism.

“It’s time to review the regulations for the use of loudspeakers. Whoever you are, we can’t escape from that terrible nuisance to our ears!” posted one critic on Facebook.