Recent news that New Zealand bar manager Philip Blackwood and his Burmese colleagues have each been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for insulting religion in Burma has been met with disbelief, at least amongst the expat community in Yangon.
Not least because the law of insulting religion has rarely been enforced, but also because the trio have received sentences more than the maximum penalty when it would seem that perhaps this is more a case of cultural insensitivity rather than an intentional plot to harm Buddhism, which is practiced by about 90 percent of people in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
The VGastro bar manager Blackwood, 32, bar owner Tun Thurein and colleague Htut Ko Ko Lwin were arrested in December when a Facebook post was used to advertise cheap drinks showing the Buddha with headphones and surrounded by psychadelic colours.
The trio will serve two years of hard labour for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant.
As someone who has met Phil Blackwood in Yangon, I can put a human face to the story and I know he had a six-week-old baby when he was arrested. So my obvious question this week when the news broke and we passed the jail where he is being housed was just how bad is Insein prison?
“Not somewhere you’d want to end up,” was the answer and tales then emerged of its notoriety, sort of akin to Denpasar’s jail in Bali where Australia’s Bali 9 have been kept for the past 10 years.
I’ve also met Burmese people over the years that have endured hard labour sentences which have made me ponder Phil’s fate.
English expat Melody, 39, an education consultant in Yangon, said she was shocked at the news as she had expected Blackwood would simply be expelled from the country in a kind of slap-on-the-wrist-and-don’t-come-back way.
Another expat bar manager in downtown Yangon last night told me the feeling locally was that the sentence was harsh because while it was clear Blackwood probably should have known better and been advised not to make the Facebook post, the flyer hadn’t really hurt anyone and the spirit in which it was intended should have been considered.
Indeed this was a line which lawyers used, but the judge handing down the sentence said the men had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief”.
The bar manager I spoke to said there was some hope Blackwood would be released at the end of the year when new elections are due and sentencing may be reviewed.
It’s been an interesting case, not least because it involves a foreigner, but also because it takes place within the recent surge of religious nationalism in the country that has aimed to promote the country’s Buddhist character. However as a result minority groups have been targeted, particularly the minority Muslim community which represents just 5% of the population. In any case, there is no doubt that many will welcome news of the sentence.
In fact there were earlier reports that no one wanted to represent Blackwood in court, possibly for this very reason or acting out against the nationalistic trend.
Blackwood’s lawyer, Mya Tway, also chose his words carefully when the sentence was handed down:
“It will be difficult to say whether this verdict is fair or not because this is Burma, not like other democratic countries. That’s all I can say.”
Apart from the question of religious nationalism, there’s also the issue of freedom of speech in the new Burma and what that might look like moving forward, particularly in an election year, and how it may damage the country’s reputation within all the reforms it has instigated. While the old years of looking over one’s shoulder have long gone, and there are reforms to freedom of speech, association and media under Burma’s current semi-civilian government, it would seem there’s still a long road to travel.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson told The Guardian the men should not have been sent to prison and their sentence raised a lot of questions about where the government might head next with similar situations:
“By using the Religion Act to criminalise these three individuals, rather than accepting an apology and dealing with it in another way, the government is, sort of, setting up more witch hunts against persons that these Buddhist groups view as being insulting their religion.”
Blackwood’s case has also been compared with that of a Buddhist monk and nationalist, Wirathu, who called a UN human rights envoy a “whore”. While it was felt he may have damaged Buddhism he has not been charged and the inconsistency with how Blackwood has been treated has been noted.
While Parliament is due to debate laws and regulations that relate to this case, the outcome of it may not come soon enough for Blackwood and his colleagues who have already endured prison since December. Blackwood’s family are hoping the government may intervene and deport him. No date has yet been set for elections yet either if they are banking on that.
And so while I am here in Yangon, I think of Phil Blackwood and his colleagues every time I pass Insein Prison. While I find the city a challenge in terms of the heat, traffic, dust, congestion and other general hardships, it’s certainly better than anything they must be facing.