Myanmar Pastors Jailed for Defying COVID-19 Restrictions
By Zaw Zaw Htwe 6 August 2020
YANGON—Two pastors and one of their followers who organized religious gatherings linked to Myanmar’s largest cluster of COVID-19 transmissions, including two deaths, have been sentenced to three months in prison with hard labor for violating the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Christian pastors Saw Kwae Wah and Saw David Lah, a Canadian Citizen, and two of their followers, U Wai Tun and Saw Raygandi, were sued by the Yangon regional government under the Natural Disaster Management Law on April 14 for violating regulations aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Myanmar has banned mass gatherings since March, but the two pastors organized religious gatherings in Yangon’s Insein and Mayangone townships in late March and early April.
The gatherings are linked to at least 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19, making them the largest cluster found so far in Myanmar.
Saw David Lah himself tested positive for the coronavirus in April and was discharged from the hospital in late April after recovering.
About 30 people who did not attend either gathering but had contact with Saw David Lah were also tested for COVID-19, including Myanmar Vice President U Henry Van Htio and his family. Everyone from this cohort tested negative for the coronavirus.
Myanmar police arrested pastor Saw David Lah and Saw Kwae Wah on May 20 after the former finished his post-recovery quarantine period.
U Wai Tun and Saw Raygandi also contracted COVID-19 and were arrested later after they finished their own post-recovery quarantine periods.
On Thursday, Saw David Lah and U Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison by the Mayangone Township Court under Article 30 (a) of the Natural Disaster Management Law.
The two had previously been charged under Article 25 of the law, which criminalizes negligence and “willful actions” that cause natural disasters and carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
Article 30 (a) of the law, however, covers failure to comply with official directives related to natural disaster management and carries a sentence of up to one year in prison.
When asked about the change from one statute to the other, Mayangone Township Court judge U Moe Swe declined to comment during his press briefing on Thursday.
On the same day, pastor U Saw Kwae Wah was sentenced to three months in prison by the Insein Township Court under the Natural Disaster Management Law for breaching the government’s orders, according to Police Colonel Tin Hla of the Insein Township Police Station.
U Saw Kwae Wah was also sentenced under Article 30 (a) of the law after first being charged under Article 25, according to the police colonel.
U Saw Raygandi had been charged under the same law but was released by the Insein Township Court last week as he was innocent, according to Police Col. Tin Hla.
Both pastors will only serve two more weeks in prison as they have already been held for more than two months.
As of Thursday morning, 357 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Myanmar, including 6 deaths and 305 recoveries. According to the Health Ministry, 198 of the total are imported cases.
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