Freedom of speech and expression have come under scrutiny with a vengeance recently. In Burma (Myanmar), it was taken to a whole new level when a bar manager from New Zealand and his two Burmese colleagues were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison–with hard labor—for posting an image on social media of a Buddha wearing headphones, in an attempt to promote unlimited frozen margaritas.
“The whole thing’s been a joke,” New Zealander Phillip Blackwood told the Daily Beast. The outlet added, “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 court charged the men under Myanmar’s Religion Act, which prohibits insulting religion; approximately 90% of Burma’s population is Buddhist. “Freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. He expressed how this case illustrated this point and then called for the unconditional release of all three men.
Blackwell’s bar, Gastro, immediately removed the flyer back in December and reportedly issued an apology on their Facebook page. But their apology was not enough: “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.”
Approximately six monks were gathered outside the court hearing, which took place this week, to support the court’s punishment of the men, the Daily Beast reported. “They insulted the Buddha by putting headphones on him!” one of them said.
Blackwell’s bar manager, Htut Ko Ko Lwin, and bar owner, Tun Thurein, were also stunned by the decision, according to the Daily Beast.
Lwin’s mother reportedly shouted outside the courtroom in frustration with the hypocrisy inherent in her nation’s court’s interpretation of her son’s case: “We talk about this being a Buddhist country, but who actually follows the five precepts of Buddhism? Not even the monks!”
Follow Adelle Nazarian on Twitter @AdelleNaz.