RANGOON — Philip Blackwood, a New Zealand national arrested last week after distributing materials deemed to be inflammatory, was arraigned along with his two local business partners at a Rangoon court on Thursday.
Blackwood’s defense lawyer Mya Thwe told The Irrawaddy just outside the Bahan Township Courthouse that his client now faces three charges including two counts of insulting religion and one count of disobeying orders.
Mya Thwe said that Blackwood will be charged in accordance with Burma’s existing laws, and that he could face four years in jail.
“He acted against our existing laws, but he apologized,” said Mya Thwe, predicting that his client will likely be convicted.
Blackwood pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was denied bail and is being held in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison, where he has been detained since his arrest.
On Dec. 10, police arrested Tun Thurein, owner of V Gastro Bar, and managers Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Blackwood after an image posted on the venue’s Facebook page went viral.
The image was an illustration advertising an event, picturing the Buddha wearing headphones against a psychedelic backdrop. Some internet Internet users found the image offensive to Burma’s dominant religion, Buddhism.
All three men now face charges for violation of articles 295, 295(a) and 188 of Burma’s Penal Code. The first two charges pertain to destruction, damage or defilement of sacred places or objects with intent or knowledge that the action could cause insult.
Article 188, under a chapter of the Penal Code covering contempt of authority, pertains to disobeying an order issued by a public servant. The defense attorney said the charge related to keeping the V Gastro Bar open after authorized hours.
All three defendants are set to appear in court again on Dec. 26.
Blackwood’s case has drawn the attention of foreigners and locals alike, as both brace to see how the courts will handle sensitive cases related to religious offense. The past two years in Burma have seen often deadly violence between its majority Buddhist and minority Muslim populations, giving rise to nationalist and sometimes extremist sentiments.
Ethnic and religious tension fortified a broad movement to strengthen the country’s Buddhist identity, manifesting in powerful syndicates like the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known locally as Ma Ba Tha.
Members of the group turned up in droves outside the courthouse on Thursday to voice their opinions on the case. One member, Win Thein, told The Irrawaddy that he felt a responsibility to see the case through.
“We [Buddhists] have a duty to come here,” he said, “We need to watch this case closely. We cannot decide to punish [the defendants], but we have our own lawyers. Our lawyers will do the work if we are not happy about the court’s decision.”
Some expressed concern that Blackwell could set a precedent of culturally insensitive behavior among foreigners.
“They should be sentenced to prison. If not, more and more people will hurt our religion,” said a 40-year-old woman standing in front of the courthouse, donning a Ma Ba Tha tT-shirt. “If we don’t protect [Buddhism] it will disappear.”
Blackwell and his colleagues said in a statement shortly after their arrest that they “would like to express our sincere regret if we have offended the citizens of this wonderful city… Our intention was never to cause offense to anyone or toward any religious group. Our ignorance is embarrassing for us and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar’s religions, culture and history.”