Prospects Dim for Religious Insult Accused

By The Irrawaddy 13 January 2015

RANGOON — Hopes for the exoneration of three men on trial for insulting Buddhism appear to be fading, after a court refused on Monday to accept a defense submission and the mother of one of the defendants expressed her lack of confidence in her son’s counsel.

V Gastro Bar owner Tun Thurein, general manager and New Zealand national Philip Blackwood, and bar manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin were apprehended on Dec. 10 after their business distributed a promotional flyer on social media depicting an image of Buddha wearing headphones. Under sections of the Penal Code relating to causing religious offence, as well as a separate charge for operating the V Gastro Bar after authorized hours, the defendants face up to four years in prison if convicted.

In the Bahan Township court on Monday, Blackwood’s counsel Mya Thwe attempted in vain to draw a parallel between the commercial sale of Buddhist images and the V Gastro case, an argument ultimately rejected by the court.

“I tried to point out that there are people who are selling pictures of Buddha, pagodas, and Jesus on streets across the country, including in Rangoon,” Mya Thwe told reporters outside the courthouse. “Those photos are not consecrated and therefore those who sell them on streets are not guilty [of insulting religion]. The Buddha Image on Facebook is also not consecrated. But the court did not accept it.”

Mya Thwe, who earlier told reporters that he had received death threats for representing Blackwood, predicted last month that his client was likely to be convicted.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the mother of Htut Ko Ko Lwin told The Irrawaddy that she did not believe that her son’s lack of involvement in the affair had been adequately conveyed to the court by his defense team.

Aye Than Than Htoo, who has lived abroad for 25 years, said that her son had been living in Singapore and Japan for the last two decades and returned to Burma in April 2014 against her advice. Htut Ko Ko Lwin had only been working at V Gastro Bar for one week before he was detained and charged alongside Blackwood and Tun Thurein, and his mother said that the defense seemed inadequately briefed on the nature of his employment at the bar.

“When the plaintiff witnesses stood to give evidence, the defense lawyers were weak in their questioning. For example, they had to ask the witness whether they knew my son was employed on probation,” she said. “Did they not know that my son was lower in position than Philip? They had to ask to find out. My son couldn’t have known what Philip had done.”
The Irrawaddy spoke briefly with Blackwood on Monday as he was escorted from an Insein Prison van into the Bahan courthouse. Looking healthy and relaxed, he said he felt well and was adjusting to life in confinement, and was enjoying the opportunity to read and spend time in the sun.

A long-time associate of Blackwood, South African national Tim Buma, also appeared in court to testify on behalf of the accused’s character, stating that the defendant was a person of gentle character who had founded the Yangon Dragons Rugby Club and mixed well in the local community.

Outside the courtroom, Buma said that Blackwood and his wife had returned to New Zealand recently for the birth of their child, and both at wanted to return to Burma at the earliest possible time as they loved their life in the country.

The trial resumes at 10am on Jan. 22, with witnesses for defendants Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin to be heard before a presentation of final arguments.

Steve Tickner, Sean Gleeson and Nobel Zaw contributed to this report.