Myanmar Military Sues Kachin Religious Leader for White House Comments

By Nan Lwin 28 August 2019

YANGON—A Myanmar military officer has filed a lawsuit against an ethnic Kachin religious leader for discussing “the promotion of democracy and federalism in Myanmar” with US President Donald Trump at the White House last month.   

Lieutenant-Colonel Than Htike from the Myanmar military’s Northern Command based in Kachin State submitted the complaint against Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) President Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson at the Myitkyina Township Court on Monday. The legal complaint cites a live broadcast of the conversation between the religious leader and the US president on the Facebook page of World News Now, according to court documents. 

In July, Dr. Hkalam Samson and another Kachin pastor, Langjaw Gam Seng, attended a meeting of victims of religious persecution from around the world organized in Washington by the US State Department. They attended the meeting alongside people from 17 countries including Iraq, Tibet, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. Pastor Langjaw Gam Seng was arrested and tortured by the Myanmar Army for his role in helping journalists cover clashes in the Mongkoe area of northern Shan State in 2016.

At a related event, a group of attendees met with Trump in the Oval Office as part of his administration’s efforts to promote religious freedom.

During the meeting, Dr. Hkalam Samson told Trump there was no religious freedom in Myanmar and that oppression and torture were still common in the country, where fighting between ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military continues despite a return to civilian rule. 

He also requested Trump support Myanmar’s transition to “genuine” democracy and federalism. 

Dr. Hkalam Samson also thanked the US for imposing sanctions against Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing and other leaders over extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims. The sanctions bar the officers from entry to the US. 

KBC President Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson delivers the opening speech at an event on June 9, 2019 marking the eighth anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Kachin State.

Fearing a possible reaction from the Myanmar military, the general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance sent a letter in mid-August to UN and US officials registering concern regarding the safety of the two pastors as concern spread that they would be arrested at the airport for criticizing the military.  

Responding to the group’s concern, US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel met with the pastors soon after they landed at the airport in Yangon.  

Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday he had not yet received any official notification from the court regarding the legal complaint against him.  

“As far as I know, the court will decide next month whether the case should be proceed,” he said.

Responding to the military’s lawsuit, Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson said he urged Trump to back Myanmar’s democratic transition, as he hoped to see the country enjoy a genuine democracy.  

“I emphasized that there is no religious freedom in the country. However, it was not focused solely on the Christian community, but the religious community as a whole throughout the country,” he added.  

The KBC president declined to go into the subject in further detail, saying he would elaborate on the religious persecution in Myanmar in court, if needed.   

The Irrawaddy attempted to contact the plaintiff, Lt-Col. Than Htike, a spokesman for the Myanmar military based at the Northern Command, but several calls went unanswered.  

The Irrawaddy has learned that Myitkyina Township Court judge U Than Tun reported the lawsuit to the State Attorney General as a special case. According to township court records, the judge will decide on Sept. 9 whether the court will accept the case. 

Kachin State-based lawyer Mung Seng Tu told The Irrawaddy, “We still don’t know how the court will proceed in this case. If the court wants to proceed with it, they will instruct the police to testify in the case. Then, both sides will have to submit testimony at the police station. After that the court will officially open the case.” 

“In my view, he has a right to express his views. Moreover, he did not intend his comments to be broadcast. They appeared live on the news on social media,” he said. 

“In terms of speaking about religious freedom, he fully has the right to rebut [the lawsuit] if there are [supporting] facts and documents,” he added. 

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