Philip Blackwood’s family steps up pressure for release of bar manager as he is treated for depression in notorious Rangoon prison
A British bar manager jailed in a notorious Rangoon prison for insulting Buddhism is to be named as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International as his family and human rights activists campaign for his release.
Philip Blackwood’s case has become embroiled in the political ascendancy of radical Buddhist nationalist monks in the run-up to landmark elections in Burma next month.
His supporters have argued that his prosecution for religious defamation for uploading an image of Buddha wearing headphones to advertise his bar was a manoeuvre by the military-backed government to court nationalist support in tne former British colony also known as Myanmar.
Mr Blackwood, 33, whose family moved from Teesside to New Zealand when he was four, is malnourished after losing five stone and is being treated for depression after 10 months behind bars, his family said this week.
He is serving a 30-month sentence of hard labour in Rangoon’s Insein jail, the infamous prison where thousands of political detainees were incarcerated in terrible conditions by the country’s former military dictators.
He is fed rice and broth and his small cell has no fan, a boarded-up window, a drop toilet down to the open sewer and a wooden pallet without bedding for sleeping
Burma Campaign UK, an activist group, this week described Mr Blackwood as a political prisoner and accused Hugo Swire, the foreign minister for Asia, of abandoning him to “rot” in Insein rather than risk British interests by pressing his plight with Burma.
The Foreign Office bluntly rejected the criticisms, saying that the British ambassador in Rangoon had raised his case but noting that New Zealand has taken the diplomatic lead in representing the dual citizen.
Mr Blackwood was prosecuted with two Burmese staff at the VGastro bar after he briefly promoted the club with the image of Buddha wearing headphones on its Facebook page.
After complaints that the image offended Buddhists, he quickly apologised and removed the offending advert.
But radical Buddhist monks demanded harsh punishment for Mr Blackwood and his two Burmese colleagues, neither of whom is known to have had involvement with the advertisement.
With the hard-line monks exerting growing political clout, the country’s military-backed government pursued the prosecution for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
The ruling party, which is trailing the opposition National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi in the election campaign, has increasingly aligned itself with Buddhist nationalists this year in an attempt to bolster its prospects at the polls.
Amnesty International has on Thursday designated Mr Blackwood and his two colleagues among 91 prisoners of conscience jailed in Burma. In a report titled “Back to the Old Ways”, it will accuse Burma of harassing and locking up scores of opponents as part of an intensifying crackdown ahead of the November 8 elections.
“Burma’s government is trying to spin an alternate reality where all is rosy for human rights, which the international community is far too eager to accept,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty’s Burma researcher.
“The reality on the ground could not be more different. The authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year.World leaders cannot take at face value Burma’s claims to have ended repression.”
Of Mr Blackwood’s case,Jonathan Cornejo, Amnesty UK’s individuals at risk campaigner, said: “It’s a gross injustice that he is being made to serve this outrageous sentence, simply because of a harmless advert to promote a bar.
“Burma has recently sought to whitewash its human rights record, but behind the scenes scores of people are still being locked up for speaking out. The UK government should insist that Phillip Blackwood and all the other prisoners of conscience in Burma are released immediately.”
Mr Blackwood’s family had initially followed British and New Zealand advice to avoid a confrontational approach in the hope that he would be released in a mass amnesty in August. But those hopes were dashed when his name was not among the 7,000 freed prisoners.
The publicity push around his case represents a new stage in the efforts by campaigners to place international pressure on the New Zealand and British governments and Burma’s rulers.
It is a high-risk strategy as even Burma’s political moderates are wary about confronting the nationalist monks during a hard-fought election campaign. But his family want to highlight his plight while the world’s attention is on the former British colony.
Mr Blackwood receives visits every two weeks from his Filipina fiancée with whom he has a one-year-old baby daughter.
“Philip is trying to put on a brave face regarding his health so as not to worry his loved ones,” his parents Brian and Angela Blackwood told Democratic Voice of Burma from their home in Wellington.
“This does not, however, disguise the fact that he is malnourished and suffering a great deal of mental stress. He is taking anti-depressants to get by.”
Mark Farmaner, the Burma Campaign UK director, launched a strongly-worded attack on Mr Swire and the Foreign Office over his fate.
He accused the Conservative minister of “failing in one of his most fundamental duties – the support and protection of British citizens overseas”.
He said: “When Mr Swire visited Burma a few weeks ago, and met with Burmese government officials, he didn’t even call for the release of Philip Blackwood or the other two political prisoners in this case.
“We have seen how the British government has abandoned Burmese political prisoners as it prioritises securing trade deals with Burma’s military backed government, but now it is even abandoning its own citizens.
“Hugo Swire seems prepared to let an innocent British citizen and his colleagues rot in a Burmese jail rather than risk upsetting his new friends in the Burmese regime. It is time for a fundamental review of British policy on Burma, and a return to prioritising human rights.”
The Foreign Office sharply criticised Mr Farmaner’s comments, saying his group was “misrepresenting” Government policy.
“It is misleading for the Burma Campaign to suggest that we do not raise difficult issues with the Burmese government – human rights, including political prisoners, remain a central part of our engagement,” said a spokesman.
“Hugo Swire set out our concerns very clearly on a range of human rights issues during his visit in July, and again at the UN last week.”
“It is regrettable that the Burma Campaign should be misrepresenting the Government’s Burma policy at this crucial moment in Burma’s reform process.”
by Philip Sherwell, Rangoon
Source – EINNews