The Hangover

03.17.15 5:40 PM ET

In Burma a Buddha With Headphones Will Land You in Jail

The rise of Burmese Buddhist extremists threatens free speech throughout the country. But 2.5 years in jail for using Buddha to advertise cheap margaritas on Facebook?

RANGOON, Burma — A bar manager from New Zealand and his two colleagues have been jailed in Burma for two and a half years with hard labor because they used a psychedelic image of Buddha wearing headphones for a drinks promotion. 

The men were arrested under a draconian religious law after extremist monks voiced outrage against the upscale VGastro bar for publishing the online flyer, which featured the revered figure alongside a promotion for unlimited frozen margaritas. 

The verdict comes amid escalating Buddhist nationalism that rights groups say is threatening to derail Burma’s fragile reform process as the Southeast Asian nation emerges from decades of military rule. 

Phillip Blackwood, his fellow bar manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin and bar owner Tun Thurein were stunned by the decision.

“The whole thing’s been a joke,” Blackwood told The Daily Beast, his brow dripping with sweat, as the courtroom emptied after the sentencing. ”We’ll definitely go through the appeals process.”  

He seemed grimly bemused by the judge’s closing statement, which he heard via an interpreter: “He [the judge] said that even though he knew there was no intent, which is part of the law, he still thinks we’re guilty. How can that be possible?”

The three of them were dragged through a throng of reporters and bundled into a police van that sped away from the court.  

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said the case shows “freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma” and called for the unconditional release of all three men.

The case is a reminder that all religions can foster fanaticism. But at least this judgment was left to the courts rather than to assassins like those who have murdered translators, cartoonists and bystanders in Europe in supposed defense of the Prophet Muhammad’s image.

The trio in Burma could have been given up to four years each under a section of Burma’s Penal Code that outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.” 

Gastro promptly removed the offending flyer after it caused a furor online in December, and issued an apology on the bar’s Facebook page. “Our intention was never to cause offense to anyone or toward any religious group,” the statement read. “Our ignorance is embarrassing for us and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar's religions, culture and history.” 

In front of a large crowd outside the courtroom, including monks, Htut Ko Ko Lwin’s mother unleashed a diatribe that touched on the populist religious nationalism that has become ever more fervent since restrictions on freedom of expression were relaxed in 2011, when the military junta installed a quasi-civilian government. 

“We talk about this being a Buddhist country,” she shouted as police officers tried to escort her from the premises, “but who actually follows the five precepts of Buddhism? Not even the monks!” 

The most prominent victims of Burma’s burgeoning religious nationalism have been Muslims, who have been characterized by prominent monks as a threat to Buddhism. Hundreds have died and over 140,000 have been forced from their homes during sporadic anti-Muslim riots that erupted in mid-2012 in western Rakhine state and have since spread to other parts of the country. 

Ashin Wirathu, a monk and well-known leader of Burma’s 969 Movement, has been accused of stoking the violence with inflammatory speeches preaching that Muslims are trying take control of the majority-Buddhist country. 

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“Muslims are like African carp,” he told the Global Post in a 2013 interview, alluding to an invasive species. “They breed quickly and they are very violent … Even though they are minorities here, we are suffering under the burden they bring us.” 

In a separate case that highlights the sensitivity of religion in Burma, Htin Lin Oo, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy, is facing religious defamation charges after he criticized the use of Buddhism to justify extremism in a speech last October. 

Htin Lin Oo’s case drew accusations that Burma’s religious laws are being used by hardliners as a tool of political oppression.  

Blackwood’s lawyer, Mya Thway, has said he received anonymous death threats for taking the case, which four other lawyers rejected. He didn’t go looking for this assignment, he said, adding that Blackwood’s wife had approached him pleading for help. 

“His wife and some others came to my place and said ‘lawyers won’t dare to take this case,’” Mya Thway said. “Why did I do it? He is a Catholic, I am a Catholic. So I helped.”   

Around half a dozen monks from a group called the Patriotic Monks Union gathered outside the courthouse on Tuesday. “They insulted the Buddha by putting headphones on him!” said Pyin Nya Wun Tha, a slender man draped in the distinctive orange robes of Burma’s monkhood.   

Despite facing death threats for defending Blackwood, Mya Thway struggles to muster some backhanded optimism for his client and the appeals process: “This is Burma,” he said before the verdict, “they can do what they want. They don’t care about the law.”