The UK-based NGO spoke out on the day three managers of a nightclub in Yangon were found guilty today of defaming religion, and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment with hard labour. New Zealander Mr Philip Blackwood and his Myanmar business partners U Tun Thurein and U Htut Ko Ko Lwin were charged under articles 295, 295(a) and 188 of the Myanmar Penal Code. Articles 295 and 295(a) relate to insulting religion. They had advertised the VGastro nightclub using an image of Buddha wearing headphones.
In a separate case, former information officer of the National League for Democracy U Htin Lin Oo faces charges under articles 295 (a) and 298 of Myanmar’s Penal Code after a speech he made on October 23 criticising Buddhist extremists for inciting hatred and violence. A Buddhist himself, he argued that the extremist Buddhist nationalists’ behaviour was contrary to the teachings of Buddhism, but has been charged with insulting Buddhism as a result. Chang-U court in Sagaing Division on March 17 upheld the accusations against him and will pursue charges on counts of religious defamation and hurting religious feelings.
Meanwhile, says the NGO, Myanmar’s Parliament continues to consider a package of new laws known as the Protection of Race and Religion Laws, which if implemented will include legislation restricting religious conversion and inter-religious marriage.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mr Mervyn Thomas said: “These cases are deeply concerning. Using a religious image to advertise a nightclub is undoubtedly insensitive and unwise, but it should not constitute a criminal offence. In the case of U Htin Lin Oo, he is facing jail for speaking up for religious tolerance and harmony and for the real values of his religion.”
Mr Thomas said these cases, together with the legislation which Myanmar’s Parliament is considering and the violence incited against religious minorities in the past three years indicate a deteriorating climate of religious intolerance, violations of freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression in Myanmar today.
His NGO urged the Myanmar authorities to drop these charges and to release Mr Blackwood, U Tun Thurein, U Htut Ko Ko Lwin and U Htin Lin Oo unconditionally, and called on the authorities to abandon the proposed new legislation and to take steps to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression for all.