YANGON (Reuters) - A prominent former official with Myanmar’s main opposition party was detained on Wednesday and faces charges of insulting religion, which stemmed from a speech intended to discourage extremist interpretations of Buddhism, his lawyer said.
Htin Lin Oo, a writer, was dismissed from his post as an information officer for the National League for Democracy (NLD) after an excerpt from a speech he gave in October was shared widely online, prompting accusations he had attacked Buddhism.
An official with the NLD, which is chaired by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, told Reuters earlier this week that the party relieved Htin Lin Oo of his position because he went too far in his speech.
Htin Lin Oo’s lawyer, Thein Than Oo, said the 10-minute video segment of a two-hour speech that circulated online was purposefully misinterpreted by extremists.
“His intention was to expose things that are bad for Buddhism, like extremism and racism,” Thein Than Oo told Reuters. “His actual intention was to ask for more tolerance.”
Myanmar emerged in 2011 from half a century of military rule, and the semi-civilian government has lifted restrictions on freedoms of speech, association and media. The reforms have been accompanied by a rise in Buddhist nationalism, with monks forming groups aimed at promoting the country’s Buddhist character.
The main target of the Buddhist nationalist movement has been the country’s Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of its 53 million people.
Sectarian violence since June 2012 has killed at least 240 people, mostly Muslims.
Myanmar’s parliament is set to debate a package of laws, including regulations on religious conversions and interfaith marriages, which were initially proposed by the Committee to Protect Race and Religion, one of the main Buddhist nationalist groups.
In a speech at a literary event in Chaung-U Township in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Division, Htin Lin Oo challenged those linking Buddhism with race and nationality.
“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, according to a translation by The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar focussed magazine and website.
Htin Lin Oo is facing up to three years in prison after being charged last month with violating laws against acts intended to insult religion and remarks that provoke religious anger, said his lawyer, Thein Than Oo.
editing by Ralph Boulton