A New Zealander and two Burmese men are facing trial in Burma after being accused of insulting Buddhism. The incident stems from an advertisement for an event at their bar in the city of Rangoon, which featured an image of Buddha – wearing a set of large headphones.
The image caused controversy after it was shared on the bar's Facebook page and soon triggered a complaint by a member the religious department of Burma, according to the BBC. The country is also known as Myanmar.
While the bar has now been shut down by authorities, its Facebook page was accessible as of Friday afternoon. In an apology posted Wednesday, the managers and owners stated: "We would like to express our sincere regret if we have offended the citizens of this wonderful city, who have welcomed us so warmly and generously."
"Our ignorance is embarrassing for us and we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar's religions, culture and history, characteristics that make this such a rich and unique society," the statement continued. "We thank the citizens of [Rangoon] for their patience and kindness and sincerely hope that our apology will be accepted."
In comments on the page, however, users argued that it was an "unforgivable act," for which it was "too late to apologize."
After the image sparked outrage, the bar's general manager, Philip Blackwood, 32, owner Tun Thurein, 40, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, were arrested and now stand accused of insulting Buddhism – a serious crime in the Southeast Asian country. Blackwood was denied bail Thursday, and a New Zealand foreign affairs ministry spokesperson said that assistance was being provided to his family.
“This insults the religion," a Burmese police official was quoted as saying by AFP. "So we opened the case under the Religion Act. We will file a lawsuit.” Among other things, the Religion Act prohibits insults and acts of destruction against religion as well as religious symbols and specifies that written insults are particularly severe.
The arrest comes amid proliferating reports about a growing Buddhist nationalism in the once-secretive nation that has been opening up to the world within the last years. In October, a Buddhist nationalist group in Burma called for restrictions on interfaith marriages in the country. Some are increasingly worried about Buddhist extremism that has taken on "assertive, strident and militant" dimensions in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma, according to an analysis by the Religion News Service. In Burma in particular, there has been violence against the country's Rohingya Muslim population.
The arrested New Zealander is not the first foreigner to be accused of a lack of respect for Buddhist values in a Southeast Asian country. In April, a British woman was arrested and deported from Sri Lanka for having a tattoo on her arm featuring an image of Buddha – without headphones.