New Zealand bar manager held in Myanmar over 'Buddha' promo

New Zealand bar manager held in Myanmar over 'Buddha' promo

YANGON - A Myanmar court on Thursday denied a New Zealand bar manager bail over accusations he insulted religion by using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in a promotion for his nightspot.

The promotional poster, which appeared on the Facebook page for the bar in Yangon, sparked outrage on social media in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which has seen a surge in religious nationalism in recent months.

General manager Philip Blackwood, 32, owner Tun Thurein, 40, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26, were detained by police late Wednesday and their bar was shuttered after a complaint by an official from Myanmar's Religious Department.

On Thursday a Yangon court remanded the trio in custody until the next hearing on December 18 over two charges of breaching the Religion Act.

According to the act, anyone who attempts to insult, destroy or damage any religion can be punished by a maximum of two years in jail, with another two-year penalty for those who try to insult religion through the written word.

"It is a no-bail offence," Judge Ye Lwin said.

"We will give you the right of defence on December 18." The posting for the newly opened VGastro bar, a tapas restaurant and nightclub in an upmarket Yangon embassy area, showed a psychedelic mock-up of the Buddha wearing DJ headphones to trail a cheap drinks night.

But the publicity stunt spectacularly unravelled, with criticism snowballing on social media, followed by the complaint and the police action to arrest the three men and close the bar.

"They were trying to promote the bar. Buddha grabs people's interest... however, Buddhists cannot accept it," a police official in Yangon's Bahan township told reporters late Wednesday.

Around 30 monks, backed by 20 ordinary Burmese, gathered at the court on Thursday.

"The whole public was insulted by the posting of the improper Buddha photograph," a monk called Thusita of the Burmese Patriot Monks Union told AFP.

"We will wait and see what action the authorities take. We will do what we need to, if the authorities do not take action," he added.

Myanmar is grappling with a growing Buddhist nationalist movement spearheaded by extremist monks, who have urged boycotts of Muslim shops and proposed a raft of deeply controversial laws to restrict religious freedom.

Their rise has accompanied several bouts of religious violence between Muslims and Buddhists, mainly in Rakhine State.

In June radical Buddhist monks urged a boycott of telecoms firm Ooredoo - one of the major foreign entrants to Myanmar's nascent communications sector - because it comes from Muslim-majority Qatar.

The bar - which opened just two weeks ago - swiftly deleted the post and wrote an apology on its Facebook page.

"VGastro management 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," it said.

"Our intention was never to cause offence to anyone or toward any religious group. Our ignorance is embarrassing."

But the apology attracted a slew of angry comments from Burmese social media users including one saying "Shame on you!", while another decried the bar management as "utterly unprofessional and culturally insensitive."

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