NZ bar manager blamed in furor over Buddha image

04 March 2015
NZ bar manager blamed in furor over Buddha image
New Zealand citizen Philip Blackwood (C) is escorted by Myanmar policemen after his hearing at the court in Yangon, Myanmar, January 2, 2015. He and two Myanmar citizens, who ran a bar in Yangon, are accused of insulting Buddhism by using an image of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones on their flyer promoting a drinks event. Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA 

The New Zealand bar manager facing jail in Myanmar over religious insult accusations was solely responsible for using a Buddha image in a controversial drinks promotion, his colleague has told a court.
Mr Philip Blackwood, a general manager of the VGastro bar in Yangon, has been held in the city's notorious Insein prison along with the bar's owner and manager, both Myanmar nationals, since posting the offending mocked-up photo of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones in December.
The poster triggered a minor storm of controversy in Myanmar, where surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern.
Blackwood, 32, along with U Tun Thurein, the bar's 40-year-old owner, and manager U Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, have all denied insulting religion during the trial, although the New Zealander has admitted posting the picture without intending to offend.
Bar owner U Tun Thurein made a personal appeal to the court on March 3, saying Blackwood was responsible for the Facebook posting.
"It was not my instruction," he told the court, asking for the release of himself and the other Myanmar national.
"I wasn't involved at all. We are not guilty."
The trio face up to four years in jail if found guilty of breaching the Religion Act with the contentious posted image, which was quickly withdrawn from the bar's Facebook page as the furore erupted.
"The verdict will be given at 12 pm on Tuesday March 17," court judge U Ye Lwin said on March 3.
Mr Blackwood's lawyer Mr Mya Thway said his client had "no intention" of insulting religion and was simply promoting a cheap drinks night, reiterating a statement made by the New Zealander at an earlier hearing.
VGastro, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket neighbourhood, was shut shortly after the poster came to light, despite a Facebook apology by management for their "ignorance" in using the Buddha's image.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which began emerging from the grip of the military in 2011, has been rocked by several deadly outbreaks of religious violence in recent years, mainly targeting the Muslim minority.
The bloodshed has coincided with a rise in popularity of hardline monks who have advocated controversial new laws which rights groups say would severely curb the freedom of religious minorities and women.
On March 3, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists called on Myanmar to scrap or completely rework the proposed laws, which are currently being debated by MPs.
The legislation would include restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths, bureaucratic hurdles for those wanting to convert to another religion, and a bill aimed at legislating family size.
"If these drafts become law, they would not only give the state free rein to further discriminate against women and minorities, but could also ignite further ethnic violence," Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director Mr Richard Bennett said in a statement.