(Yangon) – Myanmar authorities should immediately and unconditionally release two ethnic Kachin Baptist leaders who have been arbitrarily detained since December 24, 2016, Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch said today. Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng face criminal charges for guiding journalists who reported on alleged Myanmar military airstrikes that severely damaged a Catholic church in northern Shan State in late 2016.
On July 26, 2017, the Lashio Township Court is expected to hear the case against Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng. If convicted on multiple charges, the two men could face up to eight and six years in prison, respectively.
“The Myanmar military works hard to intimidate and repress the civilian population in Kachin and Shan States,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights. “This is yet another case of the Myanmar authorities targeting those who expose the military’s wrongdoing – but it’s not too late to reverse course. They should immediately drop these charges and free both men.”
The Myanmar military detained Dumdaw Nawng Lat, a 67-year-old assistant pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), and Langjaw Gam Seng, a 35-year-old KBC youth leader, one day after the Irrawaddy published photos of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Mong Ko, which was allegedly damaged by Myanmar military airstrikes. Earlier in December, the two men had guided journalists who documented damage to the church and other civilian structures in conflict-affected areas of Muse Township, Shan State. The Kachin News Group first published a photo of the damaged church in a December 15, 2016 article. The military publicly denied damaging the church and blamed damage on insurgents.
The Myanmar military interrogated the two men for several weeks after moving them on December 25, 2016, to Kalaya 123 military base in Nampaka Township, northern Shan State. Before being transferred to police custody, both Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng signed statements saying that they supported the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed group. On February 7, 2017, citing this “confession,” which the detainees’ lawyers allege was coerced, the Myo Ma police chief in Muse Township, Aye Myint, charged both men with violating article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. The police also charged the men with violating article 8 of the 2012 Import and Export Law for having unlicensed motorbikes.
On March 20, 2017, the Myo Ma police filed criminal defamation charges against Dumdaw Nawng Lat under section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code. The charge is based on an interview he gave to Voice of America on December 1, 2016, in which he alleged that the Myanmar military bombed civilians during fighting with ethnic armed groups.
These prosecutions violate the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association, Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch said. Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng each face up to three years in prison if convicted under the Unlawful Associations Act, and up to three years under the 2012 Import and Export Law. Dumdaw Nawng Lat faces an additional two years in prison if convicted under section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code.
“These two Baptist leaders are being targeted because they dared to shine a light on Myanmar military operations striking a church,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Putting an end to the horrors of war requires that information about alleged violations reaches the public. By prosecuting these two men, the government sends the wrong message not just within the country but to the rest of the world.”
Myanmar authorities have also recently prosecuted and a court convicted several other ethnic Kachin in violation of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and religion. On July 18, 2017, the Hpakant Township Court convicted Lamawng La Tawng, 53, and Lating Sau Bawm, 65, under article 19 of the 2016 Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for failing to provide direct notice to the chief of police of a mass prayer service to commemorate the six-year anniversary of renewed armed conflict in Kachin State. The court fined them each 30,000 kyat (US$22). On June 12, Zaw Jat, 41, Khun Sai, 68, and Gam Aung, 43, pleaded guilty to a similar charge in the Myitkyina Township Court and each paid a 30,000 kyat fine (US$22).
The Myanmar government led by the National League for Democracy should immediately revise its laws to bring them in line with international human rights standards such as are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Local authorities should drop charges in pending cases and cease bringing future cases against individuals for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.
“Something’s got to give. The military is trampling on the rights of Kachin while the civilian government stands idly by,” Smith said. “The civilian and military authorities need to learn to accept criticism, protect fundamental rights, and get serious about ending impunity for the military’s crimes.”
In June 2011, armed conflict resumed in Kachin State between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, and later spread to northern Shan State. Fighting in these areas increased in 2016. Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, and a number of community-based organizations in Myanmar have documented extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labor, rape and other acts of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and pillaging of property by the Myanmar army in Kachin and Shan States since 2011. The Kachin Independence Army has been implicated in the use of child soldiers and anti-personnel land mines.
Myanmar authorities have continued to restrict access to humanitarian assistance by preventing aid groups and human rights monitors from operating freely in Kachin and northern Shan States. This has resulted in avoidable deprivations of food, health care, and other humanitarian provisions for displaced communities.
Lawi Weng, the journalist who wrote the article on the military airstrikes in Mong Ko that appeared in the Irrawaddy on December 23, 2016, is also now in detention and facing charges under the Unlawful Associations Act after the military arrested him and other journalists on June 26 in Namhsan Township, Shan State.