New Zealand man found guilty of insulting religion in Myanmar

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As reported by the BBC Phil Blackwood,Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin have been given two-and-a-half years hard labour for ‘insulting religion’ in Burma. The idea of blasphemy in Buddhism is highlighted by this case as the three were sentenced today:

A New Zealander and two Burmese men have been found guilty of insulting religion in Myanmar over a poster promoting a drinks event depicting Buddha with headphones.

Philip Blackwood, who managed the VGastro Bar in Yangon, was arrested in December along with bar owner Tun Thurein and colleague Htut Ko Ko Lwin.

They have each been sentenced to two and a half years in jail.

Burmese law makes it illegal to insult or damage any religion.

The poster, which was posted on Facebook and showed Buddha surrounded by psychedelic colours, sparked an angry response online.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has seen growing Buddhist nationalism in recent years.

All three men had denied insulting religion during their trial. Tun Thurein had also told the court that Blackwood alone was responsible for the posting. Blackwood had said sorry online and repeated his apology in court.

He told the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Yangon before he entered court on Tuesday: “Hopefully a bit of justice is going to happen.”

But the judge, Ye Lwin, said that though Blackwood apologised, he had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the poster on Facebook, reported AFP news agency.

Buddhist nationalism has been on the rise in recent years, with extremist monks such as Wirathu growing in popularity and increasing clashes with Muslim minorities, particularly in Rakhine state.

Some excellent reporting can also be found in the Deocratic Voice of Burma:’Buddha Bar trio sentenced to 2.5 years with hard labour‘.

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Myanmar Detains 3 for Allegedly Offending the Buddha

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A short article by Voice of America’s Gabrielle Paluch which appeared on December 15th. Thanks to Garielle for the interview which forms part of her excellent article.

Last week, Yangon’s V Gastro Bar displayed a flier on its Facebook page depicting Buddha in vibrant, neon colors, wearing large DJ headphones, next to the words “Buddha.bar.” It promoted discounted drinks and electronic music.

Authorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma, took note. They arrested the bar’s general manager, New Zealand native Philip Blackwood, and his two Myanmar business partners, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin. The men now face charges under a law that outlaws words or images that deliberately offend religion.

The three, who are being held without bail, face fines and a jail term of up to two years. Days after being detained, they have yet to find legal representation because of the case’s sensitivity. Blackwood is scheduled to appear in court Thursday.

Rights groups say the law in question, Section 295 of the penal code, is unjust. It was the second most frequently used law to charge political prisoners in the past, according to “Burma’s Forgotten Prisoners,” a 2009 report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Phil Robertson, the rights group’s Asia director, said the law is so broadly and vaguely written that it can be easily abused by authorities or religious extremists, and the government should consider changing it.

“Unfortunately, the practice and defense of religion has gone to a more extreme stage in Burma, and what we can see is the willingness of the government to misuse provisions of law that are broadly drafted to take advantage of that,” Robertson said. “What we’re also seeing is the effective criminalization of expression of views that go against some of the more extreme forms of Buddhism that are promulgated by the likes of the [anti-Muslim] 969 Movement and the mabatha.”

The mabatha is a newly formed organization of monks, who refer to themselves collectively as the Organization to Protect Race and Religion and are becoming increasingly influential.

Robertson points out that the organization has used Section 295 to justify discriminatory practices against Muslims, whom they regard as a threat to Buddhism.

Hours after V Gastro Bar’s Buddha flier appeared on Facebook, the image had been shared several thousand times on social media. It since has been removed from the original page, replaced with an apology.

Perspectives differ

While international observers have been perplexed by the outrage on social media, Buddhism scholar Dr. Paul Fuller of Britain’s Bath Spa University said Asian Buddhists take a different approach to Buddha images than Buddhists in the west.

Although outside Asia it is not uncommon for Buddha images to be used as fashion accessories or garden ornaments, such displays could be considered blasphemous in Myanmar.

“I think we’re seeing it more and more because these fundamentalist Buddhist movements are fostering a sense of Buddhist identity tied in with national identity,” Fuller said. “Buddhism has always had a very privileged place within the western romantic understanding. Maybe it’s time we see it for what it is – a religion with all its dark sides as well.”

Several other prosecutions under Myanmar’s restrictive 295 law have garnered attention this year.

Earlier this month, opposition party National League for Democracy member Htin Lin Oo faced prosecution under Section 295 for giving a speech in which he condemned prejudice and racial discrimination in the name of Buddhism.

In an excerpt of the speech shared widely on social media, he is shown saying, “If you want to be an extreme nationalist, if you love to maintain your race so much, don’t be Buddhist.”

Earlier this year, Canadian tourist Jason Polley was deported from Myanmar when a monk in Upper Burma photographed tattoos of Buddha on his leg and shared the images on Facebook, sparking outrage. Polley was not formally charged with criminal offenses.

Blasphemy and offence in Burmese Buddhism

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Published in the Democratic Voice of Burma, 14 December, 2014.

It has been widely reported that a New Zealand citizen, Philip Blackwood, has caused offence by using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in the style of a DJ in a trance-like state. This image was used as part of a promotion for a bar in Rangoon.

He and two Burmese citizens, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin, have also been detained. The three managers of the VGastro Bar in Bahan Township have been charged under articles 295 and 295(a) of the Burmese Penal Code.

Monks from the ma-ba-tha movement (The Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion) expressed outrage at what they perceived to be the misuse of an image of the Buddha. Some of the confusion in the reporting of this story is that blasphemy is not an idea usually associated with Buddhism. However, once we consider the idea of blasphemy being a credible and even prevalent notion in Buddhist culture, our understanding of this issue might be clearer.

There are a number of questions that arise from a consideration of these and similar episodes in Buddhist countries. There are also variations on this theme. For example in March 2014 Buddhist nationalists expressed fury at what they understood as the misuse of a Buddhist flag. Its handling was taken as an insult.

The Buddhist flag (sometimes called the sāsana flag) was designed by J.R. de Silva and Col. Henry S. Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1880. One could say it is in some ways an American invention. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress. It is part of what scholars would term “Protestant Buddhism”, a complex movement that is both a “protest” against (colonial) Christianity and a movement which adopts many features of Protestantism. The flag itself is an uncomfortable creation, if I can use these terms, involving many historical, political and religious ideas. As is well known, often superimposed on the flag are the Burmese numbers “969”, expressing part of Burmese nationalist ideals of nation and religion.

I would like to consider some of these episodes in which some sort of insult is thought to have been made against Buddhism. The offence caused to Buddhism through a perceived misuse of the sāsana flag does not so easily fit into this discussion. I cite the example so as to draw attention to different levels and types of sacred objects available to us when considering blasphemous acts in the Burmese Buddhist context.

Articles 295 and 295(a) of the penal code under which the three have been charged read, respectively: “Injuring or defiling place of worship, with intent to insult the religion of any class”; and “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.

If we want to find a textual basis for these laws and the idea of blasphemy in the Buddhist tradition, one could begin with the “Five acts with immediate karmic effect” (ānantarika-kamma), often simply termed the “Five heinous crimes”. These are killing one’s mother, father or an arahant (enlightened one), wounding a Buddha, or creating a schism in the Sangha (Buddhist monkhood). A manipulated computer graphic of the Buddha cannot be considered as a “heinous” act.

Moving closer to recent events, a related idea is that of the sanctity of the image of the Buddha and other sacred objects in Buddhism. It is often assumed in modern manifestations of Buddhism that the sanctity and holiness of the image of the Buddha is a cultural accretion and one that is not essential to the practice of Buddhism. In this understanding of the Buddhist path, nothing should become an object of attachment. The material culture and religious objects of Buddhism have no real sacred value. If they were to become an object of attachment then the images would be a manifestation of greed and suffering. One cannot, in effect, insult a Buddhist. On a certain level, such an understanding is perfectly reasonable and can be justified.

The textual basis for such ideas is a famous passage from the Brahmajāla-sutta where the following is stated: “If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves.”

There appears to be a relatively clear-cut message here: to become angry at misrepresentations of any type towards the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will be an obstacle for those who take displeasure. Anger would distort the minds of those taking offence and this is far worse than the objects causing offence. This is all well and good as far as it goes. The Buddha certainly did teach a moderate path in which greed, hatred and delusion are the real problems. Those offending the sacred objects of Buddhism, such as images of the Buddha, should not cause anger to arise.

That the image of the Buddha is sacred and has very real power appears to be lost in the form of Buddhism practiced in modern, urban Asian and Western cities. The power of Buddhist sacred objects is part of what has been termed “apotropaic Buddhism”. This idea is often ignored in the modern understanding of Buddhism. The term “apotropaic” refers to object, texts and teachings that are regarded as having protective and even magical qualities. An image of the Buddha (which in a way is not simply an image, but is the Buddha, a surrogate Buddha, as it were), has the power to protect and avert danger.

And this is where the offence caused by the DJ-like Buddha image is lost on those producing such an image. The images are not only offensive to certain sensibilities but are primarily dangerous and inauspicious. The modern Buddhist might emphasise those parts of the Buddha’s teaching that focus upon notions of freeing the mind of all forms of attachment, including attachment to sacred objects, but miss other important aspects of Buddhism that emphasise the protective power of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.

Neither side is right in its emphasis upon these two aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, and there needs to be sensitivity on both sides.

Those using an image of the Buddha in a commercial way stress part of the teachings of Buddhism in which “letting go” and non-attachment are the central focus and then assume that the use of an image will not be offensive because the Buddhist is not attached to such things.

Most traditional Buddhists do not practice in this way. For them the stress is on protective and auspicious acts. Images, texts and chanting are partly concerned with averting danger. Primarily it is the Buddha (and images of Him), because of His great meritorious and ethical deeds, who accomplishes this.

Therefore, on the one hand, the manipulation of the Buddha image is harmless and surely the Buddha, being free from all attachment would not have taken any offence. In another sense the Buddha was not simply an ordinary person but someone who had strived for thousands of lifetimes generating ethical actions so that one day he could become a Buddha.

From an early point in Buddhist history His ethical actions were considered to have generated powerful qualities and it is this aspect of Buddhism which needs to be appreciated when considering the reaction to the use of the image of the Buddha in what is considered to be an inappropriate way. At the same time, those taking offence might also be prompted to reflect on the centrality of the idea of non-attachment and understand that their resentment is a hindrance upon the Buddhist path.

 

Dr Paul Fuller has taught Religious Studies at Universities in Southeast Asia, the University of Sydney in Australia and at Bath Spa University in the UK. His research interests include early Indian Buddhist philosophy and the Buddhist ideas of Aung San Suu Kyi. His book, The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism: The Point of View (Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism, 2004) explores the textual basis of discrimination and attachment in the Pali Canon.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.

Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar

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For those seeking an excellent summary and analysis of recent issues on the religious complexities in Burma ‘Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar’ is available to download for free. Written by Matthew J. Walton (Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Susan Hayward it is, to date, the most thorough analysis of nationalism and inter-religious tensions in Burma. It is published by the Honolulu: East-West Center.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been marred by violence between Buddhists and Muslims. While the violence originally broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, it subsequently emerged throughout the country, impacting Buddhists and Muslims of many ethnic backgrounds. This article offers background on these so-called “communal conflicts” and the rise and evolution of Buddhist nationalist groups led by monks that have spearheaded anti-Muslim campaigns. The authors describe how current monastic political mobilization can be understood as an extension of past monastic activism, and is rooted in traditional understandings of the monastic community’s responsibility to defend the religion, respond to community needs, and guide political decision-makers. The authors propose a counter-argument rooted in Theravada Buddhism to address the underlying anxieties motivating Buddhist nationalists while directing them toward peaceful actions promoting coexistence. Additionally, given that these conflicts derive from wider political, economic, and social dilemmas, the authors offer a prescription of complementary policy initiatives.

Buddhist Islamophobia

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An article appeared last week exploring the issue of Islamophobia in Burmese Buddhism. Burma’s Time Bomb by Kyaw Zwa Moe describes a suspicion that the Burmese government manipulates religious prejudice for its own purposes. For example, during democratic uprisings religious hatred may be used to divert attention from protests and to promote support for the military. He continues that:

A couple of days ago, a friend sent me a Burmese-language book with a shocking title: “If You Marry a Man of Another Evil Race and Religion.” The book is believed to have been written by a Buddhist monk under the pen name Pho Pa Nyaw, and it was published with permission from the Religious Affairs Ministry in January 2010, back when no book could be printed and distributed without government approval. It includes 11 stories about Buddhist women who were sexually abused, raped or forced to marry members of another “evil” religion.”

After reading some of the stories, I am convinced that the book was intended to plant seeds of hatred against Islam among the country’s Buddhist majority, although the author never specifically referred to Muslims. One story was about a Buddhist woman named Su Su Lat. She married a man of another faith, and her husband and his family prohibited her from worshipping the Buddha. In 2000, when they discovered that she was continuing to practice Buddhism, they beat her to death. The entire family was later arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Similar outcomes were described in the other stories, with the Buddhists always referred to as victims.

Two things are striking. First, the book is purported to be written by a Buddhist monk. Second, its publication was supported by the Religious Affairs Ministry. The book follows a long tradition and, as noted in the article, has its infamous predecessor in U Kyaw Lwin’s ‘969’ published as far back as 1997. As Kyaw Zwa Moe comments about the former book:

This book seems to be based solely upon hearsay, lacking detailed references to places, names or specific incidents. But even if the stories are true, I wonder why the Religious Affairs Ministry approved their publication. The writing is racist and provocative, and assuming that government officials actually read it themselves, they must have known it would stir up tension.

There is a common theme here and one which could explain the Islamophobic Buddhist rhetoric that seems to many observers to be so contrary to the teachings of Buddhism. Does the Burmese military use discrimination and prejudice against Islam as a means to divide the population and give the army a reason for its continued governance? If the country is under threat from a supposed Islamic enemy then the army, as always in recent Burmese history must be in control to defend ‘nationality, race and religion’ (ma-ba-tha)

As  As Kyaw Zwa Moe concludes:

I wonder whether the book my friend sent me recently contributed to our country’s current religious tensions. But the real question is, why did the government give its blessing? Is it state policy to encourage religious tension?

As my friend told me, “Religion is used as a time bomb here, all the time.”

Another article Buddhist vigilantes in Myanmar are sparking riots with wild rumors of Muslim sex predators considers similar themes:

 The specter of rapacious Muslim men, plotting a slow genocide of Buddhists through sexual conquest, is actually quite old in Myanmar. A 1938 newspaper article, translated by The Journal of Burma Studies, offers a stern warning to Buddhist ladies who marry Muslims brought over by British colonizers: “You Burmese women who fail to safeguard your own race … are responsible for the ruination of the race.”

The Dalai Lama urges Buddhists to stop Islamophobia

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On his 79th birthday, the Dalai Lama has urged Buddhists to end violence against Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka.

In words evoking lay meditation in the form of advising those involved in conflict to visualise an image of the Buddha, he suggested that:

‘I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime […] Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.’

 

 

Riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay

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As  reported in the Democratic Voice of Burma and other news outlets riots have broken out in Mandalay between Buddhists and Muslims. They originated in a blog post by a blogger called Ko Di, a US resident who blogs with the name Thit Htoo Lwin:

‘The violence kicked off after a blogger, who writes under the name Thit Htoo Lwin (the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog), posted an article on 30 June accusing two Muslim owners of the Sun Teashop of raping a Buddhist woman, who he said was their maid…The story was picked up by several websites, and nationalist monk Wirathu posted it to his Facebook page.’ It has been reported that the wife of one of the accused Muslim men has said that they do not in fact have a maid. Whatever the facts behind the story, tensions are clearly high, rumours spread quickly on social media, and U Wirathu appears to have help spread the story on his very popular Facebook page.

The story itself originally appeared under the title ‘Sun Teashop owners, two Muslim brothers, raped a Buddhist maid’. The website is popular with Burmese and it seems that the story was completely fabricated. However, it quickly spread through social media. It is reported that Buddhist monks attempted to calm the rioting Buddhist crowd. Galoneni Sayadaw is reported to have said:

‘We tried our best, but they would not listen. Some of them were drunk and hard to control. Whatever happens to them depends only on their own behavior. We just don’t want to see Mandalay burn because of racial and religious hatred.’

It was reported on 2nd July that the the original blog post on the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog was taken down without explanation.

From M-Media:

‘It was not the first time of posting such fabricated news at Thit Htoo Lwin and it used to blog religious and racial hatred made-up stories and news, which might lead a sectarian conflict. For instance, on 18th Jun 2013, it posted fabricated false news, “Declaration of 2nd Jihad”, with a very clear intention of causing a sectarian conflict.

The founding blogger of the Thit Htoo Lwin Blog is believed to be living in the United States currently. He worked for several foreign-based Burmese Language broadcasts such as BBC, VOA, DVB from 1998 to 2006 according to Irrawady News Magazine’s interview with him.’

A great post has appeared on this entire episode by Kenneth Wong ‘Mandalay: From Mouse Clicks to Mob Rule in 24 Hours’