Police in Muse township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state have opened a case against two Kachin Christian leaders, charging them with illegal association under a controversial colonial-era act, a local police official said on Wednesday.
The military handed over Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a 65-year-old pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and Langjaw Gam Seng, a 35-year-old KBC youth leader, to police on Tuesday after detaining the two since Dec. 24.
Police are charging them under a two-part section of the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act for providing support to the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is engaged in hostilities with the government’s armed forces as part of a four-militia group known as the Northern Alliance in northern Shan and Kachin states.
The act has been used to detain regional politicians and others who allegedly have links to ethnic armed groups fighting the government army in Kachin state.
“As usual, they are being charged under Sections 17/1 and 17/2 because they have liaised with illegal organizations,” an officer on duty at the Muse police station told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“A major from Light Infantry Regiment 99 opened the case, and we got a 15-day remand for them,” he said. “After that, they will be taken to court.”
Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng went 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 guerillas.
On Jan. 19, the military published a statement on social media acknowledging the men’s arrest and detention and accusing them of providing support to KIA rebels.
But the military had not filed charges, turned them over to civilian authorities, or provided them access to lawyers or family members, as required by Myanmar and international law, rights groups Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights said in statements on Tuesday.
Jail sentences and fines
The Unlawful Associations Act was used during Myanmar’s decades of military junta rule to detain those linked to rebel groups, and continues to be used to jail people in Kachin State for being in contact with the rebel KIA.
In recent years, local and international rights groups have called on the government to amend or rescind the law, fearing that domestic NGOs might unwittingly come under the scope of the act.
The law defines an “unlawful association” as one that “encourages or aids persons to commit acts of violence or intimidation or of which the members habitually commit such acts.”
Article 17/1 of the act sets out prison terms of two to three years and a possible fine for being a member of an “unlawful association,” making contributions to one, or assisting its operations.
Article 17/2 carries a three-to-five-year prison term and a possible fine for anyone who manages or assists in the management or promotion of an unlawful association.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights, had called on Myanmar on Tuesday to immediately release or charge the two ethnic Kachin Christian leaders, who were being arbitrarily detained by the military.
Presidential spokesman Zaw Htay told the Democratic Voice of Burma on Tuesday that the government will ensure that the two Kachins receive legal representation.
The Baptist-denominated KBC, an evangelical organization headquartered in Myitkyina, Kachin state, has been helping internally displaced people who have fled fighting between the government army and ethnic militias in both Kachin and Shan states.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.