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Plot thickens with new charges against Myanmar pastor

Junta 'has videos showing rebels attending prayer meetings, listening to sermons' by Hkalam Samson
Pastor Hkalam Samson has been remanded in custody at a prison in Myitkyina after the Myanmar junta charged him with unlawful association and incitement

Pastor Hkalam Samson has been remanded in custody at a prison in Myitkyina after the Myanmar junta charged him with unlawful association and incitement. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Published: January 16, 2023 11:37 AM GMT
Updated: January 17, 2023 03:49 AM GMT

Myanmar's junta has added a second charge against a prominent pastor arrested under the country's sweeping Unlawful Association Act, ignoring appeals from the Baptist World Alliance and civil society groups.

Baptist Pastor Hkalam Samson, who was arrested and remanded in custody last month, was charged with incitement in addition to a previous charge of unlawful association, an official of Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) was quoted by local media as saying.

Pastor Samson, a former KBC president is jailed in a prison in Myitkyina, the capital of Christian-majority Kachin state, where the junta is engaged in heavy fighting with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

If found guilty, the pastor could face three years in jail for the unlawful association, another two years for incitement and have to cough up a fine.

According to a KBC member, the military is armed with video tapes to prove the pastor’s “unlawful association.”

The junta reportedly has video footage showing members of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the armed wing of the KIA, attending his prayer meetings and listening to his sermons.

Rights groups and activists say the charges are politically motivated.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the charges against Pastor Samson were bogus and politically fabricated and should be immediately dropped.

“By going after him, the junta is effectively declaring war against Kachin civil society organizations and the people who they assist with their daily needs,” he said.

“The fact that in 2019 he was in the Oval Office, meeting the US President, and now just four years later he is behind bars on these illegitimate charges shows far and fast the situation has worsened in Myanmar," he added.

“We hope justice will win in this case. We want him to be freed as soon as possible. He is old and it is upsetting to see him in prison,” the Irrawaddy online news portal quoted an unnamed family member as saying.

Christians make up nearly 6 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million, while Buddhism is the state religion and is practiced by 89 percent of the population.

The pastor is well-known for his humanitarian work in the civil war-torn Southeast Asian nation where ethnic strife and the army’s aggression have resulted in the death of more than 2,600 civilians and the displacement of more than 1.1 million people.

Pastor Samson is the chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, the political arm of the KIA. The assembly has religious leaders, politicians and office-bearers of the Kachin Independence Organization as its members.

Earlier, the pastor was secretary and president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) for 12 years and is still associated with it in his capacity as an adviser.

When the military conducted an aerial attack on a music festival, organized by the KIO, in A Nang Pa village in Kachin state on Oct. 22 last year, he played a vital role in undertaking rescue operations.

It was the worst airstrike since the Feb. 2021 coup against the civilian government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and claimed 60 lives.

Pastor Samson was arrested by the military on Dec. 5 at Mandalay's airport while heading for Bangkok for medical treatment. Later, he was shifted to Myitkyina prison after a gap of 24 days.

Following the arrest, the Kachin Baptist Convention, the Baptist World Alliance and civil society groups sought his immediate release.

In 2019, the military initiated legal action against the pastor for telling then-US president, Donald Trump, that the junta was oppressing ethnic minorities, including Christians, in Myanmar.

He was among a select group of people from 17 countries invited by the US administration to interact with Trump.

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