Two Baptist leaders of Myanmar’s ethnic Kachin community were handed prison terms today of from two to four years on charges of unlawful association and defamation after being detained for almost a year, sources said.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service, defense attorney Awng Kham Mai said the pair had been sentenced on Friday by a Lashio township court in Myanmar’s northern Shan state.
“Dumdaw Nawng Lat got four years and three months, while Langjaw Gam Seng received a term of two years and three months,” she said, adding, “Their sentences will be reduced by the time they have already spent in detention.”
Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a 66-year-old pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and Langjaw Gam Seng, a 35-year-old KBC youth leader, were tried under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act on charges of having provided support to the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a group engaged in hostilities with the government’s armed forces.
The pair had gone missing after being summoned to a military base in Muse township in northern Shan state in apparent retaliation for taking journalists to a Catholic church allegedly damaged by airstrikes in clashes between the government army and ethnic guerrillas.
But on Jan. 19, the army released a statement acknowledging the men’s arrest.
In addition to their conviction on the charge of unlawful association, the pair had received three-month terms under provisions of the Export/Import Act for driving motorbikes without license plates, Kachin Youth Organization member Mai Maing told RFA.
“Dundaw Nawng Lat received an additional two-year term on charges of defamation filed by an army officer, Major Kyaw Zin Tun of Brigade 99,” she said.
“These cases highlight the many things we have to do just to get our rights,” Mai Maing said. “We worry that everything we do may now be punished under some unjust law.”
“I don’t know whether we should be proud or sorry to be citizens of Myanmar,” she said.
In a statement released early Friday, rights groups criticized the prosecution of the two Kachin leaders, with Matthew Smith of the group Fortify Rights saying the men had been brought to court simply “for exposing the military’s crimes.”
“They should never have been locked up on these grounds in the first place,” Smith said.
“Myanmar’s government should be prosecuting military personnel who are responsible for serious abuses—not activists who are bringing those abuses to light,” added Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Myanmar’s military has for decades violated the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities without ever having to fear being brought before a court.”
Defense attorneys are now preparing appeals, sources said.
Reported by Zarni Htun and Kan Tha for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.