RANGOON — The owner and two managers of Rangoon’s V Gastro Bar have been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison with hard labor, more than three months after they were arrested following complaints about a promotional advertisement picturing the Buddha wearing headphones against a psychedelic background.
The bar’s owner Tun Thurein, manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin and general manager Philip Blackwood, a New Zealand national, were convicted on Tuesday under articles 295(a) and 188 of Burma’s Penal Code.
The first charge pertains to destruction, damage or defilement of sacred places or objects with intent or knowledge that the action could cause insult, while the latter pertains to disobeying an order issued by a public servant. The trio’s attorney said the charge related to keeping the V Gastro Bar open after authorized hours.
All three men were sentenced two years and six months, the maximum combined penalty for the two offenses.
Many police, family members and backers of the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha gathered outside the Bahan Township court on Tuesday morning for a long-awaited verdict in the case, which has garnered international attention since the three were arrested on Dec. 11, 2014.
The verdict swept over the crowd outside, launching the mother of one of the men into a furor.
“Everyone can use Facebook in our country,” shouted Aye Than Than Htoo, Htut Ko Ko Lwin’s visibly distraught mother. “Even monks use Facebook. Is that a problem?”
Aye Than Than Htoo questioned the court’s motives, asking whether they had “used their power” to punish her son, a Burmese national who had lived most of his life in Japan.
Mya Thwe, the trio’s lawyer, declined to comment on the ruling.
International observers reacted immediately, condemning the ruling as a sign of regression on freedoms of expression and religion in Burma.
Amnesty International called the decision “ludicrous,” calling for an immediate and unconditional release.
“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar. While international human rights law permits restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions are clearly defined and limited in scope,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s regional research director.
He added that the “shrinking space for religious freedom” in Burma was “deeply worrying,” as hard-line Buddhist rhetoric has gained influence and enjoyed the tolerance of local authorities. Recent years have seen a marked rise in religious bigotry, often aroused by Buddhist nationalist organizations.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that while sharing the unconventional image of the Buddha was “culturally insensitive,” the punishment was disproportionate.
“What this shows is freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“The authorities should accept the heartfelt public apology of the three men, vacate the conviction, and order them to be released immediately and unconditionally, and the Religion Act should be amended to bring it into compliance with international human rights standards,” Robertson said.