Update 1/25/17: On January 24, 2017, presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay told the Democratic Voice of Burma that Langjaw Gam Seng and Dumdaw Nawng Lat had been charged under the Unlawful Associations Act and were being held in the Muse Police Station in Northern Shan State. The Burmese government has long used the Unlawful Associations Act to restrict freedom of association and detain peaceful activists, Human Rights Watch said. The law carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. 

(Rangoon) – Burmese authorities should immediately release or appropriately charge two ethnic Kachin Baptist leaders arbitrarily detained by the military since December 24, 2016, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights said today. The military in Northern Shan State should urgently transfer Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, and Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, to police custody so that they are no longer at risk of abuse by military personnel.

Burmese ethnic minorities walk out after mass at a Catholic church at Htaykho Village in Kayah State, Burma.

The two went missing after being called to a military base, apparently linked to their assisting journalists investigating an unlawful military airstrike. On January 19, the military published a statement on Facebook acknowledging their arrest and detention, and alleging that the two had been providing various forms of support to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In the month since their arrest, the military had not filed charges, turned them over to civilian authorities, or provided them access to lawyers or family members, as required by Burmese and international law.

“The arrest of the two Kachin Baptist leaders appears to be retaliation for their help in exposing wartime abuses,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “The military came clean about their detention only after local and international outcry, but they’re are still at grave risk.”

The military in its statement alleges that Langjaw Gam Seng, a youth leader with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and his cousin Dumdaw Nawng Lat, an assistant KBC pastor, acted as the “financial supporter, informer, recruiter, rumor monger” for the Kachin Independence Army. According to the statement, Dumdaw Nawng Lat “gave information about movements of Tatmadaw [Burmese Army] columns and financial support to the insurgents and spread slanderous news and propaganda by having links with outside media in order to mislead the local and international communities.” Langjaw Gam Seng allegedly “gave information about the Tatmadaw to KIA insurgents, recruited new members, and transported fuel for smooth transport of insurgents during the battles.”

Government leaders are responsible for the safety and security of these two men and should ensure lawyers and family have immediate access.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

The military statement added the two had been “placed under investigation” under article 376 of the 2008 Constitution, which allows detention without judicial review for more than 24 hours as a precautionary measure for national security or the “prevalence of law and order, peace and tranquility in accord with the law in the interest of the public.” The military also said that the “arrestees will be handed over to the relevant police station systematically, in order to take action against them under the law.” Thus far, no such action has been taken.

“The government needs to act now to ensure that these men are urgently transferred out of the darkness of military detention where they’re highly vulnerable to abuse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Government leaders are responsible for the safety and security of these two men and should ensure lawyers and family have immediate access.”

In December 2016, the two men had guided journalists who were reporting on Burmese airstrikes that allegedly severely damaged a Catholic church in Northern Shan State. Photographs of damage to the church were published on the internet in early December. Prior to the military statement, the men were feared to have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights said. Local government authorities failed to respond to repeated inquiries on the whereabouts of the two men. Presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay denied that the military had detained them.

On January 20, Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, raised concerns about the dangers facing individuals who speak out on rights issues. She said that the message from the government was clear: “Do not express yourself. Do not speak your mind if your opinion or position does not fit or support the narrative and agenda of those who have no qualms in how you live or die.”

Fighting between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army in northern Burma has displaced more than 23,000 people during the past several weeks. On January 11, Chinese state security forces reportedly forced back to Burma approximately 4,000 Kachin civilians fleeing Burmese military airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks.

“The Burmese military’s handling of this case shows how far the army needs to go to bring the government in line with international human rights standards,” Robertson said. “The dangers to civilians and those who are helping to expose abuses in conflict areas seem as great as ever – strong action is needed to bring changes fast.”