PATHEIN TOWNSHIP, Irrawaddy Region — An Irrawaddy Region court on Friday sentenced two leaders of the Christian “Soul Family” group to three years in prison for kidnapping a teenage girl.
The father of a 15-year-old girl from Sagaing Region’s Kantbalu Township filed a complaint with police in Irrawaddy’s Kyonepyaw Township in 2016 when his daughter refused to return home after attending a 40-day class the group reportedly ran for “would be” disciples in the village of Hlel Seik. Many of the other students, all about 20 years old, had also reportedly refused to return home after the class.
“The girl from Kantbalu saw their class on the Internet and came to Hlel Seik to attend. Her parents came to bring her home after the class, but she refused to go back. The cult then hid the girl in Pathein,” Mahn Htwng Sen, a member of the Myanmar Council of Churches, told The Irrawaddy.
“Only after her parents filed a complaint with the human trafficking squad in Pathein were they able to bring her back home. Her father was not happy and filed a complaint at the Kyonepyaw police station for kidnapping the girl,” he said.
Mahn Win Myint and Nilaw Tun, the two group leaders sentenced to jail on Friday, face another charge filed in Kyonepyaw by Mahn Htwng Sen for insulting religion, which carries a maximum jail sentence of two years.
According to the Council of Churches, the group has branches in Karen State’s Thandaunggyi Township, Karenni State’s Loikaw Township, Bago Region’s Toungoo and Pauk Khaung townships, Yangon Region’s North Dagon and Sanchaung townships, and in Irrawaddy’s Kyaunggon, Kangyidaunt, Myaungmya and Pathein townships, as well as in Singapore and Thailand’s Mae Sot district.
It says there are hundreds of young students at those branches refusing to return home.
Those who have left the group say members were asked to do unpaid work as an offering to God, raising suspicions of human trafficking and forced labor. The leader, Mahn Kyaw Soe, allegedly urged his young students to shun their families and arranged marriages for them without their parents’ consent.
“We’re satisfied with the punishment given to the two. My elder sister has been in their cult for three years and still refuses to come back home. But we can’t file a complaint because she has reached the legal age ,” Nawng Aye Aye Aung, who lives in Yangon Region’s Hlaingtharyar Township, told The Irrawaddy.
“There are many other people like my sister who refuse to go back home. I want the government departments to help bring them back to their families,” she said.
In November, after 14 families urged the Irrawaddy Region government to abolish the alleged cult, the government imposed a ban on prayer gatherings at the house of U Nyan Tun Kyaw in Hlel Seik village, where the group is based, and warned of legal action if the ban were violated.
The Myanmar Baptist Convention and Myanmar Council of Churches have also distanced themselves from the group, saying that its sermons do not conform to the teachings of the Bible.