Two Christian pastors, who were arrested by the Myanmar army nearly one year ago, were sentenced to prison last week on dubious charges. The Morning Star News reported that pastor Dom Dawng Nawng Latt, 65, received a prison term of four years and three months, while 35-year-old pastor La Jaw Gam Hseng received two years and three months for charges of unlawful association, defaming the military, and spying.
The two ethnic Kachin pastors, members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, were charged under the Unlawful Association Act for alleged connections with an ethnic armed group, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and allegedly spying for it. Nawng Latt was prosecuted under a defamation statute. They deny the charges, which colleagues say are baseless.
Nawn Latt received the additional two years under the defamation charge as the military accused him of criticizing the army while speaking to media.
Pastor Zau Ra, secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Mong Maung town, Shan state, told Morning Star News the two pastors were likely arrested and charged for speaking to media and helping local journalists cover army attacks on a Catholic church building, schools and houses in Shan state in November 2016.
The two pastors took local journalists to take pictures of the damaged St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church building that was bombed by Burma army jets at that time.
The two men were arrested on Christmas Eve 2016 after traveling to the Byuha Gone military base in hopes of negotiating the release of a civilian couple. Myanmar law states that suspects can only be held for 28 days without a trial, but Nawng and Hseng were incarcerated for months before going before a judge.
At the time of their arrest, the pastors’ attorney, U Brang Di, told Morning Star News that prosecutors were intentionally delaying the case as the military attempted to get it transferred to a court in another part of the country. While such delays are apparently common in situations involving the army, Bang Di was hopeful he could secure the release of his clients.
“The pastors can’t be detained for such a long time without trial, according to the law,” Brang Di said in April 2017. “I will try my best to make them free in accordance with the law.”
Unfortunately, it appears as though Brang Di was unsuccessful in his attempts at a fair trial. The U.S. Embassy in Yangon released a statement on Friday expressing concern over the legal action against the pastors, while international human rights groups have called for their immediate release.
“We are concerned that these individuals were targeted for assisting journalists,” the statement from the U.S. Embassy read. “We are also concerned about allegations of mistreatment during their detention. We call for the end of the use of the Unlawful Association Act and other laws used to arbitrarily arrest citizens, and we call on all actors to build trust and keep Myanmar on the path toward national peace and reconciliation.”
Earlier this year, Faithwire reported that Muslims were not the only religious minority facing persecution in the majority Buddhist country.
With a population of 55 million, just six percent of Myanmar is Christian and four percent is Muslim. Organizations like Open Doors, which ranked the southeast Asian country 28 out of 50 on its annual World Watch List for persecution, have documented the brutal human rights violations against Muslims and Christians, including dispossession, torture, forced labor, and rape.
In March, more than 100,000 Myanmarese Christians sought refuge in Malaysia, after being forced to flee their homes due to threats against their religion.
“Myanmar isn’t safe for us,” one Christian refugee was quoted as saying. “They killed people, sent people to jail because of religion.”