Editorial: Government should press Myanmar on Philip Blackwood 'Buddha' case

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff.co.nz

Friend Nathan Green believes the jailing of Wellington man Phil Blackwood in Myanmar is over the top.

OPINION: 

Wellington man Philip Blackwood has been jailed for 2 and a half years with hard labour in Myanmar.

His crime was to put up an advertisement for his new bar in the capital, Yangon, with a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones.

This was a somewhat crass thing to do – it smacked of the cliched obliviousness of Western expats in "frontier" regions of the world, out to party and make a buck.

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Yet it was hardly grossly offensive. And even if it had been, a criminal conviction and a heavy jail sentence would be a wild overreaction.

Along with two local colleagues, Blackwood has already spent three months in Yangon's Insein prison, called by one former inmate the "darkest hellhole in Burma".

He has apologised convincingly for causing offence. He has a partner and young daughter waiting for him, and a distraught family back in Wellington.

Certainly this should remind New Zealanders that other countries have far more draconian justice systems than ours. Travellers and expats should follow local rules closely because it is their own safety at risk if they don't.

It is also true that sovereign countries can make whatever laws they like, however ugly.

Yet that does not mean we cannot object to oppressive laws and to outrageous punishments, especially when they affect New Zealanders. Blackwood's conviction – for a trifling Facebook ad – and his severe sentence deserve protest.

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The Government should push Myanmar for leniency here. It may not work, but it should be tried.

Think of Australia's successful campaign to free the journalist Peter Greste in Egypt, and its current efforts on behalf of its citizens on death row in Indonesia.

The broader truth here is that Blackwood has been caught up in forces that have little to do with him.

His case has been watched as a bellwether for the direction of the Myanmar state. Judging by the's sentence, it's alarming.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the verdict as "ludicrous" and evidence of dwindling freedom of expression.

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.

This is alarming, as are Myanmar's crackdowns on protesters, jailing of journalists, and laws to entrench the military and keep opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from office.

New Zealand and the rest of the world, which has showered money and praise on Myanmar since its reforms, must consider a tougher approach.

Our Government should also be lobbying for a citizen who's suffering heavily because of the country's ugly turn.

 - Stuff

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