Myanmar sentences 2 pastors to prison for allegedly supporting rebels

Rebel soldiers of Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) patrol near a military base in Kokang region, March 10, 2015. | Reuters/Stringer

Two Baptist pastors in Myanmar's Kachin state were sentenced to prison after a court found them guilty of supporting rebels and defaming the military.

Pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Baptist youth leader Langjaw Gam Seng were detained by the army in December after they led journalists to a Catholic church that was reportedly destroyed by military airstrikes in November 2016.

The military had accused the two men of recruiting for the Northern Alliance coalition of ethnic armed groups, meeting multiple times with members of the Kachin Independence Army, and spreading false news and propaganda to the media in an attempt to defame the army.

On Oct. 27, the Lashio Township Court sentenced Nawng Latt, 65, to four years and three months in prison, and Gam Seng to two years and three months, under Myanmar's Unlawful Associations Act.

In January, the two men were reported missing since Dec. 24, 2016, when they were reportedly summoned to assist with the release of civilians held at a military base.

The government had initially denied knowing their whereabouts and blamed their disappearance on rebel forces, but it was later revealed that they were being held in military custody. The military later turned them over to the police on charges of working as "financial supporters, informers, recruiters, and rumor-mongers" for ethnic armed groups at war with Burma's army since 2011.

Human rights groups and the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) have contended that the prosecution of the two men was wholly unwarranted, arguing that the pastors were simply helping collect information on human rights abuses in an active conflict zone.

The additional defamation charge brought against Nawng Lat stems from interviews with the media, including a phone interview with the Voice of America (VOA) news outlet in December 2016.

Rev. Samson Hkalam, the general secretary of the KBC, said that his organization would send a letter of appeal to the Union cabinet.

"I think it is a harsh sentence for them. They told the reporters true information and they didn't intend to defame the military. It is a threat to the Christian religious community. We [KBC] will send a letter to the leaders regarding the verdict," he told DVB on Friday.

David Baulk, a Myanmar specialist for Fortify Rights, which has followed the case closely, contended that the charges against the pastors were "paper thin."

"So it's been clear from Day 1 that these two men were targeted for exposing the Myanmar military's crimes," he told VOA.

"They worked with media to uncover damage done by alleged military strikes in northern Shan State. And the powers that be decided that they needed to be kept quiet because of that," he added.