Myanmar: Guilty verdict for “insulting religion” must be overturned immediately

2 June 2015, 10:16 UTC

The guilty verdict against an opposition activist in Myanmar today for “insulting religion” is a serious blow to both freedom of expression and religious tolerance in the country, Amnesty International said.

Htin Lin Oo, a writer and former information officer of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s main opposition party, was today convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour by a court in Sagaing region.

The charge on which he was convicted relate to a speech he gave in October 2014 in which he criticized some groups for using religion to stoke discrimination. A 10-minute edited version of the speech circulated on social media soon after, causing outrage among Buddhist nationalist groups that led to his subsequent arrest. He was acquitted of a second charge of “wounding religious feelings”.

“Today’s verdict is yet another blow to freedom of expression in Myanmar and should be overturned immediately. Htin Lin Oo did nothing but give a speech promoting religious tolerance – we consider him to be a prisoner of conscience who should be released without conditions,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“This is a sad indication of how Myanmar continues to rely on a range of draconian laws to silence and lock up critical voices. Despite promises to clear the country’s jails of prisoners of conscience, arrests of peaceful activists have actually picked up pace alarmingly over the past two years.”

Extremist Buddhist groups with a nationalist agenda have become increasingly influential in Myanmar in recent years. They maintain a growing presence on social media where Htin Lin Oo’s speech was first brought to wider public attention, and played a key role in pushing for his prosecution.

National and international NGOs have raised concerns about extremist Buddhist groups using inflammatory language to incite hostility, violence and discrimination against non-Buddhists, in particular the Muslim Rohingya minority who have faced decades of systematic discrimination in Myanmar.

“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.