A bar manager from New Zealand and his two local coworkers were sentenced Tuesday by a Myanmar court to 2 1/2 years of prison with hard labor, for depicting Buddha with headphones in an online ad for a happy hour special.
The men — 32-year-old Phil Blackwood, 40-year-old bar owner Tun Thurein, and 26-year-old manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin — were arrested in December. They posted the psychedelic image of Buddhism’s most venerated figure to the Facebook page of V Gastro, the bar where they worked in Yangon– Myanmar’s largest city and former capital.
Shortly after the arrest in December, the bar issued an apology, saying that “our ignorance is embarrassing for us and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar’s religions, culture and history.”
Myanmar, also known in English as Burma, is about 90 percent Buddhist. Its laws enshrine preferential treatment for Buddhism over other religions, according to the Department of State’s latest report on religious freedom there. The report also describes instances in which “government officials encouraged or enticed non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism” in majority-Christian areas.
In recent years, a violent streak of religious nationalism has become popular in parts of the majority Buddhist population, led by a group of monks known as the 969 Movement. The group has encouraged mass violence against Muslims and Christians, leading to the displacement of thousands from areas where they are especially prevalent. Its leader has been described as “The Face Of Buddhist Terror.”
Amid this atmosphere of increased religious sensitivity — and intolerance — in Southeast Asia, foreigners have attracted scorn and legal action. In February, two American women were deported from Cambodia for taking lewd photographs at one of the country’s holiest Buddhist sites. (RELATED: Why Do Tourists Keep Getting Naked At Cambodian Temples?)
Despite the increased popularity of 969 and other Buddhist movements, a Myanmar poll quoted by Time Magazine showed that 90 percent of respondents believed the defendants should not be jailed.
According to the Associated Press, Blackwood told reporters that he would appeal the verdict.
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