Baptist Minister in Myanmar Gets 6 Years in Prison for Opposing Junta


Hkalam Samson, a Baptist minister in Myanmar who once called attention to his country’s human rights abuses at the White House, was sentenced to six years in prison on Friday on charges of terrorism, unlawful association and inciting opposition to the regime in Myanmar.

Mr. Samson, 65, the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Myanmar, has denied the charges. His supporters, including international human rights groups, said that the charges were manufactured by the military-led regime to silence him, and called for his immediate release.

“The junta’s politically motivated case against Rev. Hkalam Samson, who is internationally renowned for his humanitarian and community work, shows that no one is safe in Myanmar,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The military junta, which seized power in a coup more than two years ago, is battling an increasingly well-armed alliance of ethnic armies and pro-democracy forces. With clashes occurring daily, the military has responded by killing and brutalizing civilians.

“It is too much to imprison an innocent person for six years,” said Mr. Samson’s daughter, Hkalam Hparat Hkawn, after learning of the verdict on Friday. “Now they threaten not only our freedom of expression, but we are afraid to even breathe.”

Mr. Samson met President Donald J. Trump in 2019 when he and other leaders attending a conference on religious freedom in Washington were invited to the White House. He had previously met with President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Samson told Mr. Trump that ethnic groups were being “oppressed and tortured” by Myanmar’s military and thanked him for imposing sanctions on leading generals for their brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017.

After he returned to Myanmar, the military filed a criminal defamation complaint against him but backed down after the State Department criticized the move.

Mr. Samson was arrested in December at Mandalay International Airport as he prepared to fly to Bangkok for a medical checkup. He is being held at Myitkyina Prison in Kachin State, where he has not been allowed to receive visitors, according to his attorney and family members.

His trial was held in a courtroom inside the prison. Only his attorney and witnesses were allowed to be present. He has seen his wife, Zung Nyaw, just once since his arrest, when his attorney called her as a witness, she said.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Zung Nyaw said her husband was subjected to harsh interrogation that lasted for 24 days after his arrest. She described him as a man who is more interested in the common good than his own affairs.

“He is a man who knows God and loves God,” she said. “He is a preacher, so he has no enemies. He is a person who sacrifices himself and helps others.”

Christians make up about 6 percent of the population of Myanmar, which is predominantly Buddhist.

Mr. Samson’s attorney, Dau Nan, said two of the charges arise from a trip he took in January 2022 from his home in Myitkyina, Myanmar, to the remote mountain town of Laiza. The town is under the control of the Kachin Independence Organization, an ethnic political group that has sought autonomy in Myanmar for decades.

The group’s military arm, the Kachin Independence Army, has long battled Myanmar’s military forces and controls more than half of Kachin State, which is predominantly Baptist.

Ms. Zung Nyaw said her husband had traveled to Laiza with the military’s permission. He met there with the longtime ethnic Kachin leader Duwa Lashi La, who is the acting head of the National Unity Government, a political organization established by ethnic groups and ousted elected leaders after the coup that claims to be Myanmar’s true government.

That meeting led to the charge of terrorism. Mr. Samson also met with General Sumlut Gunmaw, the vice chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, which resulted in the charge of unlawful association.

The third count stemmed from a prayer meeting the minister held last year by Zoom with young Kachin people living around Asia. During that meeting, he cited the Bible in calling for people to build “the nation in Christ,” which led to a charge of inciting opposition to the regime.

Since the coup, the security forces have arrested and detained more than 22,200 political prisoners, with more than 17,300 still in prison, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group. Nearly all arrestees are subjected to harsh questioning at interrogation centers, and 145 have died, the group said.

Aung Myo Min, the National Unity Government’s human rights minister, said that charging people with terrorism when they engage in peaceful activity was nonsensical.

“From the beginning, he was arrested without any valid accusations,” he said. “Arresting and imprisoning a religious leader who is respected by the public highlights how bad Myanmar’s judicial system is. It shows that no one is free and safe in Myanmar.”

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