US calls on Myanmar to free religious leader

Hkalam Samson was sentenced to six years in prison this month.
By RFA Burmese
US calls on Myanmar to free religious leader Myanmar religious leader Dr. Hkalam Samson, photographed on Sept. 19, 2019

The U.S. State Department has condemned the six year prison sentence handed down to Myanmar religious leader the Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson.

Myitkying Prison Court in Kachin State sentenced him on April 7, based on charges of alleged terrorism, unlawful association and inciting opposition to the military regime.

Immediately after the judgment his wife said Dr. Samson had committed no crime.

“Despite his innocence, the verdict has been handed down. We accept it as God’s will,” Zhon Nyoir told RFA.

His lawyer, Dong Nang, said she had lodged an appeal against the judgment.

“We have already given the application and we have to appeal until the end. I will do everything I can,” she said.

In a statement Monday, a State Department spokesperson called the charges “manufactured” and demanded Dr. Samson’s immediate release.

Burma’s brutal military regime has targeted Rev. Dr. Samson, a prominent, well-respected religious figure, for his courageous work, including advocating for freedom of religion or belief,” the statement said, noting Dr. Samson’s dedication to supporting the peace process, fighting drug abuse in Myanmar, lobbying for justice and equality for Christians in Kachin State and across the country, and facilitating the safe return of over 100,000 internally displaced persons to their homes in Kachin.

The 65-year-old  is a former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly.

Dr. Samson suffers from congenital pneumonia and high blood pressure.

He was arrested at Mandalay International Airport last December, on his way to Thailand for medical treatment. Authorities told him his name was on a no-fly list and questioned him overnight at Central Regional Military Command headquarters.

The following day, authorities flew him back to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, where he was again arrested.

At the time, Dr. Samson still worked as an advisor for the Kachin Baptist Convention, which has about 400,000 members, most of whom are ethnic Kachin.

He was also president of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, a group of local religious and political leaders who help foster communication between the Kachin Independence Organization, an ethnic Kachin political group, and the local community.

In October last year, he helped organize hospital treatment and funerals for people injured and killed in a junta airstrike on an annual concert hosted by the Kachin Independence Organization. The group's armed wing has been actively fighting against junta troops since the coup as well as training anti-regime People’s Defense Forces.

More than 60 people died during the attack, residents said at the time. 

In 2017, Dr. Samson visited the U.S. White House and thanked Donald Trump for imposing travel bans on senior Myanmar military commanders involved in a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. He also appealed to the then-president to take action against religious persecution in Myanmar and to support the country’s transition to genuine democracy.

He was sued by Major Thu Aung Zaw of the junta’s Northern Regional Military Command, based in Kachin state, for speaking about Myanmar’s religious and human rights situation during the meeting but the case was later dropped.

The U.S. State Department ended Monday’s statement by calling on Myanmar’s junta to stop the violence and persecution of civil and religious activists that have marked the more-than-two-years since the military seized power in a coup.

“We urge the regime to cease its unconscionable repression against religious actors, communities, and houses of worship in Burma and end the violence,” the statement said.

Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Mike Firn.


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