THE BLOG

My Social Media Misstep Was Easily Rectified - My Cousin is a Year Into a Jail Sentence Because of His

10/12/2015 12:48 GMT | Updated 09/12/2016 10:12 GMT

phil blackwood

When I first met the Foreign Office Minister of State, Hugo Swire, he shook my hand, gave me his business card and said:

"That's so you can spell my name right next time."

I'd slagged him off on twitter. In my frustration at his silence and lack of action, I'd called him Hugo Swine (not Swire). I admit that this was childish. I regretted doing it almost straight away and in fact deleted the tweet in the end.

But having thought about this, his response gave me an interesting perspective. This was the first thing he had to say to me in 10 months.

10 months I'd been fighting for my cousin Phil to be recognised by the UK government as a political prisoner in Burma.

You might of heard of him. He's the daft bugger that used an image of Buddha on Facebook to promote his Bar in Myanmar. Much like my tweet, he recognised his error quickly, took the image down and publicly apologised. But regardless, he and two of his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned for 'deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs'.

It's ludicrous that he was then given the maximum 2.5 year sentence when there was clearly no intent. Certainly no deliberate and malicious intent.

A bit more context - there's a powerful group of Nationalist Buddhist monks in Burma called the Ma Ba Tha. They're a scary bunch (Google them!) and Phil had really ticked them off. It just so happens that the President of Myanmar was coming up to an election at this point and in my opinion, imprisoning Phil was a way to curry favour with these Buddhist Nationalists and I believe he is a political prisoner for this reason. Surprise surprise, his 'trial' was a non-event and his appeals have been equally dismissed.

Amnesty International and campaigning charity Burma Campaign UK agree with me. Yet the UK government say it's 'subjective' and also continue to tell me that to utilise 'megaphone diplomacy' would be counter-productive. Well I'm not sure what a year of their diplomacy has accomplished?

They also underline that as he travelled on a New Zealand passport (he's a dual national) - it's primarily for the New Zealanders to deal with. Yet Phil has repeatedly asked for the UK's help because of the lack of action from the New Zealand government.

Long and short of it; I think the Foreign Office has other priorities. This is a sentiment that was echoed by the most senior official in the Foreign Office Sir Simon MacDonald earlier this year, when he said that [human rights] is "one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities."

Today marks a year since Phil was arrested. Still the UK government won't take the one small step I've been asking for - classing Phil as a political prisoner. You can help me by emailing the Minister of State here and asking him to do more. Right now, this is more important than ever as Burma readies itself for a new government.

While the Foreign Office stay quiet, it's entirely possible that any amnesties go ahead without Phil's name on the list. Many already have.

Without action, Phil will continue to rot in his cell in one of the world's most infamous jails, while his baby daughter and fiancé go without his support.

Without action, his family face another Christmas without him.