4 Mar 2015

Myanmar bar manager awaits judgment

12:59 pm on 4 March 2015

The New Zealand-born manager of a Myanmar bar will hear in two weeks whether he is guilty of insulting Buddhism in a promotion.

New Zealander Philip Blackwood being led into a court in Yangon, Myanmar.

New Zealander Philip Blackwood being led into a court in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: SUPPLIED

Philip Blackwood and his co-accused, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, face up to four years in jail if found guilty of breaching the Religion Act. They have pleaded not guilty.

The trio, who run a bar in Yangon, are accused in connection with a flyer and online promotion for a drinks event that depicted Buddha wearing headphones.

They have been held in the city's notorious Insein prison for nearly four months, since posting the mocked-up photo.

Under the act, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who insult religion through the written word, AFP reports.

On Tuesday, the Myanmar owner of the bar, Tun Thurein, made a personal appeal to the court, saying Mr Blackwood was responsible for the Facebook posting. "It was not my instruction. I wasn't involved at all. We are not guilty," he told the court, asking for the release of himself and the manager.

Mr Blackwood's defence argued there was no intent to insult Buddhism, Channel News Asia reported. The advertisement was misguided and once informed it could be deemed offensive, Blackwood removed it and apologised.

The lawyer Mya Thway asked for his client's acquittal.

Amnesty International has called for Mr Blackwood's immediate release.

South East Asia research director Rupert Abbott said Mr Blackwood was a victim of growing religious intolerance and a more conservative tone in Myanmar.

"There's a sense that Myanmar has been backtracking on human rights records.

"The situation with freedom of expression has got worse, there was a promise to release all prisoners of conscience. Actually the number of prisoners of conscience is now going up.

"So there's this real rise in religious intolerance and I think Mr Blackwood's case is reflective of that," Mr Abbott said.

The court will hand down its judgment on March 17.