RANGOON — Police in Rangoon’s Bahan Township said they apprehended a New Zealand national and two Burmese men on Wednesday night and charged them with insulting religion because the bar they were working in had distributed a promotional flyer showing a Buddha wearing headphones.
The men are due to appear in Bahan Township court on Thursday and could face up to two years in prison if found guilty of the charges.
Lt-Col. Thien Win, the head of Bahan Police Station, told the media that police had acted after receiving complaints over the advertisement, which had gone viral on social media in recent days and attracted a wave of criticism from Burmese Facebook users who viewed it as disrespectful to their religion.
On Wednesday afternoon, police apprehended Tun Thurein, the owner of V Gastro Bar, as well as the bar’s general manager Philip Blackwood, a New Zealand national said to be 32 years old, and bar manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin. The bar was shut down and police were stationed outside the venue on Wednesday night.
Thien Win said four members of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion—a Buddhist nationalist movement called Ma Ba Tha in Burmese—had complained to Bahan authorities on Wednesday about the flyer of V Gastro Bar, which recently opened in Golden Valley, an upscale area in central Rangoon that is home to affluent Burmese, foreign embassies and international aid organizations.
“We ensured them that we would take action as soon as possible, and they seemed pleased with our promise,” he said, adding that an officer heading the township’s religious affairs department subsequently filed an official complaint with the police over the depiction of the Buddha.
The flyer of V Gastro Bar showed a seated Buddha wearing headphones to a colorful, psychedelic backdrop along with advertising for 15,000 kyat (US$15) “Bottomless Frozen Mararita [sic]” cocktails.
“During the interrogation session, Mr Phillip, who runs the bar mostly, said he posted the pamphlet online on Dec. 9 to promote the bar. He said he did it because using the Buddha in ads is in fashion internationally and thought it would attract more attention,” Thien Win said.
“But his act is disrespectful to Buddhism. So we filed a lawsuit against them under the Criminal Code’s articles 295 and 295 (a) for disgracing the religion. We will bring them to the court [on Thursday],” he continued.
Tun Tin, a Buddhist resident of Bahan Township, said he found the advertisement insulting to his religion, adding, “For we Burmese, a Buddha image statue is the most sacred and represents the exalted one. They should at least have some respect for the major religion of the country where they live.”
V Gastro Bar’s management issued a statement following the arrests, saying 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.”
Like in neighboring Thailand, any act disgracing the religion is a sensitive issue in Burma. In September this year, the Burmese government deported a Spanish tourist after authorities found he had a Buddha image tattooed on his calf. In August, a visitor from Canada was also kicked out for the same reason.
The controversies come at a time of heightened nationalism in Burma, a predominantly Buddhist country. Since the beginning of the country’s democratic transition in 2011 there have been recurrent outbursts of anti-Muslim violence and nationalist monks and organizations like Ma Ba Ta have whipped up nationalist sentiments that portray the country’s dominant religion as being under attack from Islam and other foreign influences.