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Dutch tourist Klaas Haijtema will serve up to three months in a Burmese prison for violating the country’s strict religious laws.
A Mandalay court found him guilty today of violating Article 296 of Burma’s Penal Code, which prohibits “disturbing religious assembly”. The 30-year-old had earlier faced up to two years in prison for “deliberately insulting religion”, an offense under Article 295 of the Penal Code, but that charge was dismissed by the court.
Haijtema was also sentenced for breaching Burma’s immigration laws, but was able to pay a 100,000 kyat (US$80) fine in order to avoid an additional six months in prison.
Defense lawyer Hla Ko of the Myanmar Legal Aid Network said that Haijtema can now either appeal the judgment or seek a pardon from the Ministry of Home Affairs via diplomatic channels.
Upon hearing about the court’s decision, Mandalay resident Aye Lwin called it “regrettable”.
“The [defendant] was sentenced to three months under Article 296 because he could not be found guilty under Article 295. The prosecutors should have just dropped the [Penal Code] charge against him. Instead, it pushed to get him jailed under a different article, which I think is regrettable.”
The charges against the Dutchman were brought after he unplugged the sound system in a dharma hall where a Buddhist sermon was taking place. It was 10pm on 23 September, and the tourist said that he had disconnected the amplifier because the noise was disturbing him in his hotel room nearby.
An angry crowd gathered outside his hotel in Mandalay and demanded he be handed over. Police managed to quell the unrest, but only after they promised that charges would be pressed against the tourist.
While some residents were clearly offended by the man’s action, others were more understanding.
“I am a Buddhist, too, and I respect the religion, but I must say that blaring loudspeakers late at night is indeed very disturbing, whether it’s for a religious event, or donation or just someone singing,” said renowned Mandalay-based writer Nyi Pu Lay.
“I don’t think what the young man did was serious enough to get him locked up for a lengthy period — it was just a clash of cultures,” he added.