In December, a bar in Myanmar posted a promotion for a happy hour on its Facebook page. The promo showed an image of a Buddha wearing headphones and promised bottomless frozen margaritas.
Because of that post, the bar's general manager -- a New Zealand expat -- and two local associates were sentenced Tuesday to two and a half years in prison for charges including insulting religion.
The promotion was apparently crafted without a massive effort or time investment – margarita was spelled "mararita." It sparked an outcry from locals angry that the Buddha had been used to advertise a bar. Though the bar apologized profusely, the case blew up, becoming a cause for international human rights activists who were shocked that a cultural blunder on a Facebook page might lead to tough prison sentences.
"It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He called for their immediate release.
The case and several others touched off an international outcry over human rights in Myanmar, which recently opened up after years of isolation under a repressive military junta. It also raised concern about growing radical Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, also called Burma.
For the country's advertising and marketing industry, the case is sensitive. Though Myanmar has opened up fast, with foreign brands from Coca-Cola to Unilever re-entering the country after sanctions were rolled back three years ago, foreigners may underestimate how conservative and traditional it remains.
One Westerner with ad industry experience in Southeast Asia said that people who know Myanmar Buddhism wouldn't have dreamed of running such an ad.
Locally, he said, the case isn't being perceived as a threat to the ad industry, but as a mistake by a foreign bar manager, with tragic consequences.
"It's a bit like a foreigner creating an advertisement in Thailand that insulted the king," he said. "Local agencies would think, 'you should know better,' not, 'this is a threat to freedom in advertising.'" Many in the industry had been hoping prison sentences could be avoided.
The defendants were New Zealander Phil Blackwood, general manager of the VGastro bar in Yangon, as well as owner Htun Thu Rein and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin. They received two years for violating the Religion Act and an extra six months for selling alcohol during prohibited hours, according to Bloomberg News. The men reportedly planned to appeal.
The ad is no longer on the bar's Facebook page, and the bar quickly put an apology in its place. "Our intention was never to cause offense to anyone or toward any religious group," it said. "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."