In this photograph taken on Nov. 22, 2016, Myanmar government militia, belonging to the Border Guard Force, patrol Muse town located in Shan State that borders China's Yunnan province during clashes between the military and ethnic insurgents including the Kachin Independence Army. (Photo by AFP)
In the latest sign that the military still holds enormous influence in Myanmar, this time in its courts, two ethnic Kachin Baptist pastors in northern Shan State have been convicted under unlawful association laws for alleged ties to rebels in neighboring Kachin State.
Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 67, assistant pastor from Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) and Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, youth leader, were sentenced to two years and three months each for alleged ties to the Kachin rebels and possessing unlicensed motorcycles, at Lashio court on Oct. 27, 10 month's after being detained.
Nawng Lat received an additional two-year sentence for criminal defamation as he revealed information on the military's human rights violations in Mong Ko, northern Shan State in December 2016 to members of the media.
Local activists and rights groups said the military's detention of two church leaders was linked to their helping local journalists investigate unlawful military airstrikes.
Revered Hkalam Samson, general secretary of the KBC, claimed the court decision was not fair and they will appeal the verdict and send letters to local and international leaders.
He said that the two pastors did not violate any laws and were simply helping the journalists understand the conflict.
"The military appeared to send a clear message to all ethnic Kachins not to support the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and they prosecuted two pastors under draconian laws as an example," Rev. Samson told ucanews.com.
The 1908 Unlawful Association Act was used during the country's long military rule, which officially ended in 2011, to detain people linked with rebel groups. Despite a partial transitioning to democracy in Myanmar, the act is still being used to jail people in Kachin State.
In 2015, the National League for Democracy won a general election in a landslide, seizing control from the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party but the military retains control over three key portfolios — home affairs, defense and border security as well as 25 percent representatives in both houses of federal parliament under the 2008 Constitution.
Military operations in Rakhine State over the past 10 weeks that has resulted in more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh has underscored how little influence Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has over areas of the country in conflict zones.
Khin Zaw Win, a director of Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, said the military has been using the Unlawful Association Act in conflict-torn regions such as Kachin, northern Shan States.
"The judiciary is yet to be independent and they are still influenced by the Ministry of Home Affairs so judicial reform is needed in Myanmar," Khin Zaw Win who is also a former political prisoner told ucanews.com.
Ma Khar, a Myitkyina-based lawyer who has defended unlawful association cases, said the Unlawful Association Act is being used in Kachin and Shan States as a political tool.
Ma Khar said that people who are accused of contacting the KIA are forced to confess in the interrogation process by special branch police and the military intelligence. He said the court made the verdict based on only forced confessions despite no strong evidence linking the two with the KIA.
"Whenever people are charged with unlawful association, the judges can't overcome the influence of the authorities so that raises questions of fairness and independence of the judiciary," Ma Khar told ucanews.com.
The two pastors were arbitrarily detained by the military in northern Shan State on Dec. 24, 2016 after they were initially reported missing following heavy fighting between the government and Northern Alliance groups including the KIA.
The area is predominately Kachin Christian apart from some Buddhists from the ethnic Shan and Palaung tribes.
Civil wars continue to plague many ethnic-minority states in Myanmar, particularly in the country's northern, mainly Christian, Kachin State. This conflict has spread into the northern part of neighboring Shan State. Since hostilities resumed in 2011, following a 17-year ceasefire that broke down, more than 120,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and they remain in internally displaced people camps in Kachin and northern Shan States.
Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights have also called on Myanmar authorities to drop charges against the two pastors.
"Two Kachin religious leaders are being prosecuted for exposing the military's crimes," Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights," said in a statement on Oct. 27.
"They should never have been locked up on these grounds in the first place."