A court in central Myanmar on Tuesday sentenced a former opposition official to two years imprisonment with hard labor for insulting religion in a speech that urged tolerance among the country’s hardline Buddhists.
Htin Linn Oo, a prominent writer, was arrested in December on offending religious feelings charges after an excerpt of his October 2014 speech went viral. Given at a literary event, Htin Linn Oo’s speech criticized the use of Buddhism as a tool for discrimination and extreme nationalism. Amid protests from nationalist monks and affiliated groups, he was also stripped from his post as an information officer in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Hi lawyer Thein Than Oo said Tuesday that his client was sentenced to two years by the Chaung-Oo township — the maximum jail term for violations of Article 295a, outraging religious feeling. He was acquitted of a second charge of “wounding religious feeling.”
“But Htin Linn Oo is innocent and not guilty of anything, so we will make an appeal to the district court in Monwya,” Thein Than Oo told ucanews.com on Tuesday.
According to Thein Than Oo, a dozen monks have been coming to the court and taking photos since the trial began late last year. “So the way they act seems like they are pressuring the judiciary and it is not a good thing for the country.”
According to a translation by The Irrawaddy news outlet, Htin Linn Oo said in his speech: “If you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don’t believe in Buddhism.”
Radical Buddhist monks and groups have been growing amid the opening of freedom of speech and political freedom under Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government, which follows more than four decades of harsh military rule.
Rights groups condemned the verdict and urged his immediate release, noting that the writer was in fact promoting religious tolerance.
“The growing influence of extremist Buddhist nationalists and their hateful rhetoric in Myanmar is deeply troubling. Instead of taking steps against these groups’ attempts to incite discrimination and violence, the government seems intent on compounding the problem by imprisoning those speaking out against religious intolerance, like Htin Lin Oo,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement issued Tuesday.
Burma Campaign UK also urged Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to pressure the Burmese government to ensure the immediate unconditional release of Htin Lin Oo and the remaining political prisoners in Myanmar.
“The jailing of Htin Lin Oo is an example that people in Burma still get arrested for exercising their freedom of speech. It is time for the British government to step up public and private pressure to make sure that Htin Lin Oo and all remaining political prisoners are released immediately,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK in a statement on Tuesday.