Burmese author and politician facing possible prison time for blasphemy

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Irrawaddy reports:

Columnist and National League for Democracy member Htin Lin Oo has been subjected to a lawsuit for contravening the Burmese Penal Code's statutes on religious offence, after a speech last month provoked outrage from Buddhist groups.

An officer from the Department of Immigration in Sagaing Division's Chaung-U Township has filed a lawsuit against Htin Lin Oo under Article 295a, which prohibits "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings", and Article 298, which proscribes "uttering words […] with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings". Both charges are punishable by fines or imprisonment of up to two years for the former and one year for the latter….

The prominent author gave a two-hour speech to over 500 people at a literary event in Sagaing Division's Chaung-U Township on Oct. 23, during which he criticized the use of Buddhism as fig leaf for prejudice and discrimination.

"Buddha is not Burmese, not Shan and not Karen—so if you want to be an extreme nationalist and if you love to maintain your race that much, don't believe in Buddhism," he said at the time….

"If they accuse me of insulting the religion … I will also defend that," Htin Lin Oo said. "I didn't intend to target monks, I only intended to discuss those who don't obey the Buddha's words and do whatever they want. Everyone already knows that but they just ignore it."

He added that the Buddha instructed his followers to have mercy on all beings, and those who argue that some should be shown kindness to the exclusion of others do not live up to Buddhism's precepts.

"There are both good people and bad people in all religions," he said. "We can't insult other religions for having some bad people and also say that others can't insult Buddhism for having some bad people. I believe I did my duty."

Unsurprisingly, I'm not an expert on Burmese law, but from this story this sounds like what might have been called a "private prosecution" in America—a criminal claim but brought by a citizen (though here, a government employee) rather than by an official prosecutor. If anyone knows what the likelihood of a conviction here would be, please let me know.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.