Two religious leaders from Myanmar's ethnic Kachin minority were found guilty on Friday of assisting an insurgent group in a trial derided by rights monitors.
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, were convicted under the Unlawful Associations Act.
The human rights monitor Fortify Rights confirmed the convictions, which were handed down by the Lashio District Court in northern Shan State.
Nawng Lat, who was also convicted of defaming the military, received a prison sentence of four years and three months, while Gam Seng was given a sentence of two years and three months. The sentences include guilty convictions for operating an unlicensed motorbike.
The charges mostly stem from interviews with the media, including the Voice Of America, conveying information about alleged military air strikes that were said to have damaged a church and other property in northern Shan State in late 2016. The men were arrested in December soon after photos of the damage appeared in news outlets.
Myanmar is largely Buddhist, but Christians of different denominations make up the second-largest religious group in the country, accounting for more than 6 percent of the population.
Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch issued a joint statement on Friday calling for all charges against the men to be dropped.
David Baulk, a Myanmar specialist for Fortify Rights, said in an interview with VOA that the case against the men was “paper thin.”
“So it’s been clear from Day 1 that these two men were targeted for exposing the Myanmar military’s crimes,” he said. “They worked with media to uncover damage done by alleged military strikes in northern Shan State. And the powers that be decided that they needed to be kept quiet because of that.”
Baulk said the men were held incommunicado for several weeks after their arrest and interrogated repeatedly. The authorities then produced signed statements from the two saying they supported the Kachin Independence Army, one of a handful of ethnic armed groups fighting for more autonomy in northern Myanmar.
In December, the Irrawaddy news magazine, citing a local priest, reported claims that an army official had at first taken responsibility for the air strikes, but the military ultimately blamed the damage on insurgents.
Several groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, were involved at the time in clashes with the Tatmadaw , as the military is known.
Contact information for the plaintiff could not be obtained. This week a police official in Shan State's Muse Township told the Myanmar Times that “we cannot interfere with the court’s judgment.”
The Unlawful Associations Act has long been used as a way of isolating ethnic armed groups from the civilian population. In June, three journalists were accused of violating the act after reporting in a conflict area. They were released in September.
Much of the world’s attention has focused on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and the mass exodus of the stateless Muslim minority to Bangladesh. But fighting continues in northern Myanmar as a peace process launched by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stalled. Nearly 100,000 people are internally displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states, according to figures from aid organizations.
“While the world looks away, the military of this country continues to commit serious human rights violations against civilians in northern Myanmar,” Baulk from Fortify Rights said. “Fighting between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations continues to kill, injure and displace communities up there. So in the last few months alone we’ve seen literally thousands of people running for their lives across Kachin and Shan states.”
Humanitarian groups have also reported difficulties in delivering aid to the affected areas.
In March, the United Nations established a fact-finding mission to probe alleged rights abuses in Myanmar’s various conflict zones, but the government has said it will block visas of investigators.