Myanmar sentences 3 people to two years in prison for depicting Buddha with headphones

March 19, 2015 • 10:25 am

If anybody thinks that Buddhists are a lot less concerned about criticism of their faith than are members of other religions, think twice. Myanmar, for instance, is hard on its Muslim minority population: even one of my heroes, Ang San Suu Kyi, has been criticized for being indifferent to the welfare of those Muslims.

And now Myanmar has sentenced three people, a New Zealander and two Burmese (Myanmrians?) to two years in jail—for the horrible crime of insulting the Buddha! How did they do it? By advertising an event at a bar with a picture showing Buddha wearing headphones! As The New York Times reports:

A bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese men were sentenced to two years in prison in Myanmar on Tuesday for posting an image online of the Buddha wearing headphones, an effort to promote an event.

The court in Yangon said the image denigrated Buddhism and was a violation of Myanmar’s religion act, which prohibits insulting, damaging or destroying religion. “It is clear the act of the bar offended the majority religion in the country,” said the judge, U Ye Lwin.

The image was posted in December on the Facebook page of the VGastro bar and restaurant in Yangon. After an outcry from hard-line Buddhist groups, the police arrested the restaurant’s general manager, Philip Blackwood, 32, of New Zealand, along with the bar owner, U Tun Thurein, 40, and the manager, U Htut Ko Ko Lwin, 26. The three have been held in Insein prison in Yangon.

Here’s the offending picture, now removed from Facebook. Horrible, isn’t it?


The offenders were forced to make a grovelling apology:

The three convicted men faced possible prison terms of as long as four years in connection with the image, which was posted on the bar’s Facebook page. The image was quickly removed, and the bar issued an apology, saying it had not intended to cause offense.

“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 apology said.

That’s six years total out of three lives, all for putting headphones on the Buddha. What rot. Buddhists are supposed to be better than that.

90 thoughts on “Myanmar sentences 3 people to two years in prison for depicting Buddha with headphones

    1. Yes, they are horrible massive 70s-style headphones, which is pretty insulting to anyone.

      Although horrible massive 70s-style headphones have bizarrely reappeared in recent years.

      1. The big, padded headphones have much higher sound fidelity. Earbuds suck, actually.
        Only the best for The Rotund One.

        1. Does that help much, given the low fidelity of mp3 in the first place?

          (I mostly listen to spoken word, so fidelity doesn’t really matter).

          1. You’re right about fidelity, but the difference is frequency, not fidelity. You are going to get effectively no bass from ear buds. The big headphones revival came out of the hip-hop community. So, it makes sense that people who prefer to listen to bass heavy music would prefer to have large headphones. Plus, recording studio headphones have always been of the larger variety and so there is the cache of using expensive, studio quality headphones to listen to music. (BTW, Beats and Skull-candy just look like studio quality headphones, in reality they’re very poor.)

          2. Double blind experiments fail to demonstrate much difference between high bit rate mp3 and uncompressed audio. Audiophelia is full of woo. Audiophiles hate double blind the way Chopra hates empiricism.

            That doesn’t hold true when producing and editing music. Generations of editing and lossy compression will eventually be noticeable.

              1. Common denominator is the lowest resolution component: the speakers.

                This is like saying people can’t tell the difference between a window and a TV when they are not wearing their spectacles.

                Try this with some high-end full-range speakers and the cheap equipment will likely fail to drive them properly, let alone sound different.

                Audiophile Woo goes in both directions: those who need to prove magic is real and those who need to insist that their lack of perception means everyone else is imagining things.

                One example of woo I encountered was an audiophile store who insisted that their carbon fibre interconnect cables gave superior sound. These were so thick and resistant to flexing that equipment had to be blu-tacked to the shelf to avoid the cables straightening out and flinging it onto the floor. (Who was it who said inconvenience is often regarded as an indicator of quality in hi-fi?)

                They gave me a sample to borrow in the hope I would part with the $100’s per metre. I unscrewed the plugs to have a look and found that all the soldering they had done were dry joints mixed with melted insulation and one cable was shorted out. Once I resoldered them, I expect even more signal got through, but I wonder if their magic sound difference was merely the filtering effect of the dry joints!

            1. It is, but if you hear a really good sound system it is much much better than run of the mill stuff.

            2. Results for a capable encoder at high bitrate may be one thing, but the typical stream formats on the Internet and in online stores are so far removed from the lossless audio experience that even a small pair of computer speakers can reveal the difference, let alone decent headphones.

              Even so, it does seem to me that lossy music is slightly soft in focus and lacking in high frequency transient “sparkle”. When people claim the difference can’t be heard, I wonder if they take into account the increase in self-inflicted hearing loss from rock concerts, clubs, noisy stores, and simply running headphones at damaging levels.

              That, and some recordings are more badly affected by lossy compression than others.

            3. I’m an audiophile who long ago weaned himself from woo, and my own blind tests of components helped.

              (I typed a much more detailed reply, but my iPad froze and lost it. Words don’t capture how execrable the experience is of typing replies on an iPad….)

            4. Absolutely agree about audiophilia.

              MP3 is a ‘lossy’ compression method. An mp3 sounds absolutely fine if it hasn’t been excessively compressed. (A bit analogous to JPGs in pictures). A more common fault is a sound file that’s been over-driven at some point in the recording history, producing distortion.

              And reasonable quality headphones can give listening quality as good as very expensive speakers, and way better those silly little earbuds.

              So, a cheap MP3 player, an adequate set of phones, and a reasonably good MP3 file can give you as good a sound quality as you’re likely to be able to hear.

      2. I believe earbuds are much more likely to give the Buddha hearing damage than on-ear phones. Those two guys deserve medals for looking out for Buddha, not jail time! Seems like defense counsel really dropped the ball on this one.

  1. A true buddhist wouldn’t waste a breath of concern about an insult to the Buddha, either real or (in this case) not. I’m not sure what kind of Buddhism is practiced in Myanmar, but if it’s this intolerant as a rule, it is no longer anything like what the Buddha taught.

    1. I am not very knowledgable about Buddhism, but I do know there are several sects, and a brief search reveals that the Dali Lama is Tantric Buddhist while Myannamarians (?) are Theravada Buddhists, so I don’t think they give a shit about the Dali Lama wearing headphones.

      1. If the inter-sect relations between the multitudinous sects of the Desert Dogmas are anything to go by, it would be very likely to make things worse.

  2. Google “Buddha images”. Of the couple of dozen images that I looked at, that picture doesn’t look like any of them.

  3. Notwithstanding its profound psychological and philosophical insights, Buddhism as a *faith* has all the hallmarks of a religion, warts and all…

    The good news is that the useful stuff can be easily divorced from the religious BS, a process strongly objected by the traditionalists, of course.

  4. Cheezus! The Buddha has been depicted with headphones hundreds of times as in this earnestly reverent blog post

    Three miles from my house is the coffee shop near a private airport called “Abundant Air”. Their logo is Buddha wearing flying goggles, as seen here.

    The Burmese government has a long history of censorship. A few years ago someone was put in prison for three years for posting a video of a cyclone’s destruction.

    I’m inclined (with many caveats) to view Buddhism and Taoism as relatively wiser religions, but theocracy is never a good idea, no matter what is being promulgated.

  5. Careful Professor Ceiling Cat! You may have to return as a d*g in your next life for posting such an evil picture!!!! 😉

  6. (as re “better than … … that”) … … Very many times / online hits noted of Buddha, so I say, of such “spiritual” leaders: n.o.o.o.o.t quite:

    In short, from Buddha: “The body of a woman is vile and filthy, and not a vessel for the law,” or She Who Has No Power nor Cred.
    — Dr Rosalind Miles. Chapter 5: The Sins of the Mothers, page 102: The Women’s History of the World.


  7. That image should be as widely shared as possible. Censors need to understand that clamping down like this will, at least in the West, have the opposite effect from what they intended.

  8. I see this as the pious sensing the absurdity of their own religion and its icons (illustrated through the juxtaposition of a religious icon and a modern technology) and, rather than embracing the absurdity and further reflecting on the implications, reflexively overreacting and upping the absurdity level. It’s a defense mechanism.

    And further evidence that all religions, even the ones we think of as relatively innocuous, are totalitarian.

  9. I think this article is confusing government censorship/control with religious philosophy. Yes there are many branches/sects of Buddhism just like any other religion, but a quick glance at the core beliefs/teachings of the system shows no justification for imprisonment based on any use of the image of Buddha.

    The difference then, between this and say an issue where someone is doing something like oppressing people based on passages in their core religous books that promote such abuses (such as in the Christian bible and Islamic koran that promote the oppression of those who engage in same-sex relations for example) is that someone is basically making shit up with no actual religious basis to punish people because they feel like doing so.

    All in all, it doesn’t seem right to blame a religion that doesn’t in any way promote that kind of response for something a government did to oppress its people. In this case it is just a government wielding its power to censor its people because it feels like doing so, not because there is any religious text that says that they should.

    And if the Buddha did indeed teach that any image dipicting him in a way that is not authorized by him should see the authors of said image punished, please do post the bit of religious text saying so to help enlighten me about that particular core belief.

    1. You might try being a little less snarky in your comments please. I never said that Buddha taught anything about not giving his image, just as there is nothing in early Muslim texts (including the Qur’an) that Muhammad should not be depicted. That proscription happened only later.

      But who else but the Buddhists would pass such a law? It’s not just the government, it’s the BUDDHIST government “pandering to hard-line Buddhists,” as the Times article notes. In such a case there’s no real distinction between government and religion, and your comment, while duly noted, is way off the mark.

    2. Exactly the distinction that I also wished to point out. We consider ISIS’ atrocities to be “Islamic” because they are directly following passages in the foundational literature of Islam (the Quran and the Hadiths). This ruling on Burma’s part, by the same token, is un-Buddhist because it directly contravenes passages in the foundational literature of Buddhism (in the case of Theravata Buddhism, the Pali Canon).

      1. I don’t think that is completely accurate. We consider ISIS’s atrocities to be “Islamic” very largely because ISIS says so. It happens to also be the case that many of the atrocities they committ are prescribed in their various holy writings. But not all of the things ISIS does in the name of their version of Islam can be supported by the earliest known version of the Koran.

        It really seems to me to be unreasonable to say a particular behavior is not religiously motivated because the very earliest known version of the religion in question does not prescribe the behavior. This is basically the No True Scotsman fallacy. Religions evolve and sprout new branches regularly.

        If some sect derived from previous Buddhist traditions says it is Buddhist, then they are Buddhist regardless of the differences between their current religious beliefs and precursor versions of Bhuddism. And if their sect of Bhuddism includes something that supports or prescribes punishment for disrespecting the Buddha, and they do that, it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that the behavior is religiously motivated.

        1. Sure, but in an all-out race to avoid any appearance of True Scottsmanism, you eventually end up conceding that Professor Ceiling Cat is in fact a true Catholic, and that the Buddha was a true member of ISIS.

          In this case, Theravata Buddhism is the stated religion of 80%-90% of the populace, and more disproportionately of the government officials. Theravata Buddhism stems directly from the Pali Canon. Any interpretation of Therevata that directly contravenes that might be “true” by your standards, but not by the standards of the foundational text they’re professing to follow.

          Of course, it bears repeating that this doesn’t mean they’re not Theravata Buddhists overall, just that in this particular case they’re deliberately ignoring their own scriptures. (Just as I can be a total jerk most of the time but still be nice on occasion.)

          1. “They are desperate for the support of the monks to maintain power, and the monks wanted this prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to provide an example to others.”[from Heather’s comment below]

            The distinction you are making does not seem relevant to me. You seem motivated to defend Buddhism. Buddhism is just as malleable, just as susceptible to sectarianism as any other religion, philosophy, or more generally, any ideology.

            I don’t have a problem with the claim that this behavior is not aligned with your favored, original, instantiation of Buddhism. But other than saying yours is better than theirs, which I agree could be accurate, I don’t see the point in this context. These monks are motivated by their commitment to Buddhism to pressure the government to punish these people for an imagined slight to their Buddha. If it is good enough for the monks it seems pretty pointless to me to deny that their behavior aligns with their religion. It isn’t like this kind of behavior is unique among Buddhists.

    3. I wrote about this on my website a couple of days ago. The government is a military one, and facing an election. They are desperate for the support of the monks to maintain power, and the monks wanted this prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to provide an example to others. There were a whole lot of them massed outside the court awaiting the verdict.

      The maximum sentence for blasphemy is two years HARD LABOUR, which all three received. In addition, each received six months for disobeying an official. Insein Prison is notorious for filth, torture, brutality and other horrible stuff.

      These men will appeal, but there’s little chance of success in the current political climate.

      Burma has also imprisoned several journalists, and killed at least one, on trumped up charges. I’ve outlined some of them too.

  10. I was in Myanmar a year ago and found the food pretty bad. The government may be trying to crack down on a new “Gastro Bar” trying to upgrade the traditional national cuisine and using blasphemy as a fashionable pretext to do so.

    Also the owner and the bartender may actually be Burmese, one of Myanmar’s about 30 recognized ethnic groups (a list on which Rohinga Muslims are not included

      1. In case anyone doesn’t know, Burma and Myanmar are the same country. The current government wants it called Myanmar, but some countries refuse to recognize that name because of the way they came to power, and continue to call it by its previous name, Burma.

    1. My own take is that authoritarianism is a free-floating personality trait that can attach to any theology or ideology. I suspect there are authoritarian libertarians.

      I would bet I’ve seen authoritarian anarchists.

      1. I would think there are a lot of authoritative libertarians. Some of them take the attitude “my way or no way”.

        1. Or “freedom for me, but not necessarily for thee”. My take is that libertarians accept the authority of ideology, rather than the authority of reason/evidence. And they are happy to cherry pick the evidence in support of that ideology (e.g., climate change).

  11. Several of my friends were once raving about a book which described a wonderful Buddhist monastery. It is their firm belief that the practice of true spiritual thinking changes the world through a sort of magical osmosis. Even being near such sacred holiness will soften hearts and result in a more loving and peaceful society. This monastery was an example of that. So I asked where this amazing monastery was.

    You guessed it. Burma. Aka Myanmar.

    When I pointed out that the human rights abuses in Myanmar were so egregious that they’d been condemned by Amnesty International for years, the basic response was a shrug. The peaceful practices must be having a positive effect on the culture in some way that wasn’t immediately obvious.

    Heads they win, tails I lose.

    1. Ugh. Practice of meditation makes me less stressed out and more empathetic. Isn’t that benefit enough, without having to invent magic invisible rainbows to go with it?

      1. Yes, it’s a real shame that the meditation and introspective techniques only now become an object of rational inquiry, after thousands of years of being firmly embedded with religious dogma and superstition.

        Of course, there were some interesting and important practical developments since the times of the Buddha, but they came in between thick layers of even more supernatural nonsense added.

        My hope is that the progress of neurofeedback technologies will soon bring the practice of meditation to entirely new level, far superseding the techniques described in Buddhist scriptures.

    2. “magical osmosis”

      Great name for a new-age band. I can practically hear the finger-cymbals and tamboura, smell the patchouli oil, from here.

      Maybe you should get a trademark down on that.

      1. That would be a cool name. It immediately reminded me of Anreas Vollenweider’s music.
        Try the album White Winds (perhaps my favorite) or Caverna Magica and you’ll see what I mean.

        It doesn’t get much more mind bending than to sit in the sweet spot in front of a truly accurate pair of loud speakers, close your eyes and experience White Winds. Hmm. I haven’t done this in a long time. I still have this on vinyl. I’ll have to give it a spin this evening.

        I’ve never smoked pot, but I bet doing this while high would be like an animated Yes album cover from back in the day.

        1. I’ll give it a try sometime, though I’ve got a habit of cranking the volume up past the “sweet spot.”

          I smoked a little weed back in college, but I never exhaled.

  12. Hmm… should we take offense at this? Not only it depicts Darwin with headphones on, but also exploits his image and theory for commercial purposes:

    Sorry for a poor quality–snapped from my car on a freeway. Milwaukee, near the headquarters of KOSS, a headphone maker.

    1. Rare colour photo of Mr D on his little-known second trip to the Galapagos, not the one when he was 26.

    1. Indeed, very different from my Buddhist friends certainly, who are all either assimilated Thais or Japanese, or American Jews (the latter identifying variously as JuBu’s or BuJu’s).

      1. I wish those who do know about it (like myself) knew how to remedy the situation, and not simply skip to reading yet another post or tweet.

  13. Some could argue that Burma does this simply because they can or that is how the govt. is and this is not religious at all. But if so, let’s see the folks going to prison for putting headphones on people or monkeys or anything other than Buddha. Then you can argue with something less than nothing.

    1. In 2008, poet Saw Wei was sentenced for 2 years for his work “February 14,” that spelled out “Power crazy senior general Than Shwe” using the first characters of each stanza. So, yeah, Burma/Myanmar definitely has precedent for jailing people for relatively mild satire.

  14. Along with Buddhists, Hindus do the same thing and get a free hand from Western media. Also I just get sick and tired of the nonsense that these religions propagate. For example, a couple just gave birth to a son who has severe cerebral palsy and other health concerns. The baby is three months old. The idiots said “well this baby committed horrible sins in his previous life so that is why he is born with such abnormalities”.

    What a bunch of b.s.

    1. Yes, Hindus can sometimes act pretty bad; and Buddhists on occasion also, so not defending them. But it seems to take a Muslim (or a Bush) to go to a foreign country to mass-murder innocent people – at least for the past few decades.

  15. If Budda were alive today he would be using all the mod cons and trappings for his preaching and writing and if not him , certainly his followers, what a crock..

  16. we will attempt to correct it by learning more about Myanmar’s religions

    I think they’ve already learned more than they wanted to know about one of them!

  17. When state power is based on religion, the state cannot tolerate any reduction in religious prestige.

    Buddhism isn’t immune to this. No religion is immune to this.

    Hell, *ideology* isn’t immune to this, generally speaking. Religion is uniquely vulnerable because the nature of faith claims are such that they are immune to reality checks. Other ideologies find it more difficult – though not impossible – to be immune in the same way.

  18. “If anybody thinks that Buddhists are a lot less concerned about criticism of their faith than are members of other religions, think twice.”

    That’s a sweeping generalisation based on one example, I think I’d want a lot more evidence before I concluded that Buddhists on average were as intolerant as Islam or much of Xtianity.

    Particularly when the offending Buddhists in question happen to be the Myanmar government, a notoriously totalitarian organisation – singling out them as representative of worldwide Buddhism is a little like identifying Pol Pot with atheism.

    I think I read that the law in question penalises criticism of _any_ religion, not just Buddhism. I do agree it’s outrageous.

    Meanwhile Indonesia is about to execute dozens of people by firing squad for drug offences – notwithstanding that the jail they’ve been in for years is full of drugs. Should one condemn the War on Some Drugs for the excesses of its adherents in Indonesia? (Actually, I would…)

  19. The law broken, Was a law against insulting “RELIGION”… The law does not specify which religion. None of the comments that I have seen seem to pick up on this. I believe the same law would apply equally to any other religion. Enforcement may or may not happen in the nation in question for insulting other religions. It was not a Buddhist Law that was broken, but a manmade law of the land, legislation. “Buddist Laws” are similar to the “Law of Gravity”, observations really. Not man made, not pronouncements from an imaginary skydaddy, who hates all the same people you hate, but observations of cause & effect. It does not matter if you believe or not, defy gravity there will be consequenses.

    1. But a law that was broken is a law that privileges religion, and the law is an asinine one, inasmuch as it reifies religion and admits that religion (uniquely among other ideas) can be insulted. What’s more, no legislator decides what constitutes an “insult”, it’s left to the religious themselves.


  20. And like most religious governments, they fail to uphold the tenets of the faith they profess to follow and utilize in their governance.

    A great Zen master once said: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”. Why? Because attachment to even the Buddha himself is a cause of suffering and distraction from Buddhist practice. It comes from the idea that attachment to and worship of the Buddha is not conducive to enlightenment.

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