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A sleepy tourist unplugged a loudspeaker playing religious music in Myanmar — now he’s headed to prison

A sleepy tourist unplugged a loudspeaker playing religious music in Myanmar — now he’s headed to prison

In numerous countries around the world, unplugging a speaker blasting religious music would be considered a harmless -- though potentially offensive -- act.

In Burma, where insulting a religion is a prosecutable offense, it's the kind of behavior that can land you in prison. Klaas Haytema is the latest illustration of how seriously the conservative Southeast Asian country takes its religious observances.

The 30-year-old Dutch tourist, who was arrested in late September, was sentenced Thursday to three months in prison for "unplugging an amplifier blasting a late-night Buddhist sermon near his hotel in Mandalay," according to the Associated Press.

Haytema blamed the incident on a simple misunderstanding.

"I was really tired that night and woke up to the noise," he told the court last week, according to the New York Times. "I was very angry and assumed that children were playing music. I told them to lower the volume of the loudspeakers before I unplugged the amplifier, and they didn't understand me. That's why I unplugged it."

Haytema said in his defense that he didn't see any signs identifying the building as a religious center, the Times reported.

A judge convicted Haytema of "causing disturbance to an assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship."

"He was found guilty under Section 296 of the Penal Code and sentenced to three months in prison," Haytema's lawyer, Hla Ko, told Reuters. He said Haytema was also fined about $80 for violating visa regulations requiring cultural respect.

"I plan to lodge an appeal for him against the verdict," Ko, a Burmese lawyer who volunteered to represent Haytema, said.

In countries across Asia, loudspeakers are frequently used to broadcast religious messages from mosques, Buddhist temples and Christian churches, often at high decibel and during the early-morning or late-night hours. To the uninitiated, reactions to the broadcasts can range from viewing them as a minor irritation to an invasive form of noise pollution.

Under Burmese law, insulting religion is a criminal offense. But what constitutes an "insult" is vaguely defined and could include having tattoos or displaying other inadvertent religious representations, according to the U.S. State Department:

Images of the Buddha can be particularly sensitive. In 2016, a tourist was deported for allegedly having a tattoo of the Buddha on his leg. As in any country, visitors are encouraged to be respectful of local customs when visiting religious sites.

You may be prosecuted for posting seemingly negative or derogatory comments on social media, including Facebook, under the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which criminalizes "extortion of any person, coercion, unlawful restriction, defamation, interfering, undue influence, or intimidation using a telecommunications network." If convicted, you may face a fine and/or imprisonment.

Last year, the AP reported, a New Zealand bar manager in Burma was sentenced to two years in prison for posting an image on the bar's Facebook page depicting Buddha wearing headphones. Phil Blackwood was added to an amnesty list and released in 2016 after a year in prison, according to the Guardian.

After Haytema cut power to the speakers, the AP reported, angry locals gathered around his hotel to protest. The Myanmar Times reported that soldiers were eventually forced to intervene and the crowd only dispersed when authorities promised legal action.

"In the three-month period of Buddhist lent, our ward recites sermons every night before the Sabbath day," Ko Phone Myint, a resident of the ward, told the paper. "The foreigner came and unplugged the cord connected to the amplifier."

A man reciting a sermon that was interrupted when Haytema cut off his musical accompaniment decided to press charges against the Dutchman.

Chit San, a community leader, told the AP that the situation was on the verge of turning violent. "We could not negotiate peacefully because people were angry, so we called the police to control the situation," Chit San said. "We actually didn't want him to get arrested."

U Zaw Win, a lawyer working on Haytema's behalf, told the New York Times that the Buddhist center had violated the law using loudspeakers after 9 p.m., which is illegal. "The one that broke the law is the dharma community hall, not the Dutch man," Win said.

Ko Hla Myo Aung, who lives near the Buddhist center, told the Times that nearby religious centers routinely violate noise ordinances banning chants during certain hours. "If the Buddha were still alive, he would go deaf from the noise from the loudspeakers," he said.

Haytema has since apologized and said he didn't realize he had shut off religious music. After his conviction Thursday, he "wept with his girlfriend before he left for jail," the AP reported.

Even so, Haytema got off relatively easy by Burmese standards. He faced up to two years in prison, the AP reported, but the judge said he found the Dutchman guilty of less serious charge to "show mercy."

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