Philip Blackwood a victim of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar

A Myanmar court has jailed a New Zealand bar manager, Philip Blackwood, and two Myanmar colleagues for two and a half years for insulting religion by using a psychedelic image of Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar.

Myanmar’s semi-civilian government has lifted restrictions on freedom of speech, association and media, but reforms have been accompanied by a rise in Buddhist nationalism.

The main target of the nationalist movement has been Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people.

Sectarian violence since June 2012 has killed at least 240 people, most of them Muslims.

Parliament is due to debate laws, including regulations on religious conversions and interfaith marriages, which were initially proposed by a Committee to Protect Race and Religion, one of the main Buddhist nationalist groups associated with Wirathu an anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar

Myanmar’s population is about 90% Buddhist, and many influential monks believe the sentence is just.

“If the judge sentenced him to less than he should get, there could be more and more insults to the religion,” says U Pamauka, a Buddhist monk.

In an editorial Wellington’s DomPost said:

“Buddhism has a deserved reputation as a religion of peace, and Buddhist monks were behind the 2007 Saffron Revolution that helped push Myanmar’s military junta towards promising reforms.”

“But Buddhism in Myanmar has an oppressive strain that is on the rise. It is showing in the persecution of the country’s Muslim minority, the chilling of free speech and the rise of inflammatory religious leaders.”

“It seems Blackwood’s case connects to all this – such prosecutions have been rare till now, and hardline monks gathered to watch the sentencing. Observers fear more witch hunts.”

Blackwood grew up in Wellington and attended Victoria University where he studied engineering.

He had lived in Yangon previously but returned to New Zealand for 12 months last year.

His first child, a daughter named Sasha, was born in Wellington in August.

Blackwood and his partner Noemi Almo returned to Yangon to live last October.

His parents, Brian and Angela live in Tawa, just north of Wellington.


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