Bar's Buddha poster lands 3 in Myanmar prison for insulting religion

Yangon restaurant owner, 2 employees convicted of insulting religion with poster of Buddha wearing headphones

A poster of Buddha wearing headphones, created to promote a bar and restaurant in Myanmar, has led to prison terms for the establishment’s owner and two employees, including a man from New Zealand.

A court in Yangon, Myanmar’s main commercial city, on Tuesday ruled that the three men had insulted religion. Each was sentenced to a term of 2 1/2 years.

The poster showed a blue Buddha head, wearing large, Beats-like headphones and surrounded by psychedelic shades of magenta and yellow. It was created to advertise a special event at the bar on Dec. 14. It was posted on Facebook and sparked outcry and some protests.

VGastro bar owner Tun Thurein, 40, employee Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, and Phil Blackwood, the manager, were arrested Dec. 10.

A statement posted that day on the establishment’s Facebook page said: “VGastro management would like to express our sincere regret if we have offended the citizens of this wonderful city, who have welcomed us so warmly and generously. Our intention was never to cause offense to anyone or toward any religious group.”

It added: “Our ignorance is embarrassing for us and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar's religions, culture and history, characteristics that make this such a rich and unique society. We thank the citizens of Yangon for their patience and kindness and sincerely hope that our apology will be accepted.”

VGastro opened in late November; Blackwood had previously managed the 50th Street Cafe Restaurant and Bar in Yangon. 

Myanmar, long ruled by a military junta and largely closed to the outside world, has opened in recent years. Still, religion is a serious subject in a nation that has a Buddhist majority and has seen outbreaks of religious violence targeting minority Muslims.

Under national law, a person who tries to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by up to two years in jail, with additional penalties for those “who try to insult religion through the written word.”

Blackwood's father, Brian, told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that his son was not aware of Myanmar's strict laws, and had consulted co-workers to see if the poster was offensive. He said his son should have been found not guilty because it was not an intentional act. He called the verdict “ridiculous.”

Leaving the courtroom, Phil Blackwood told reporters that he would appeal, the Herald said.

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