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Myanmar pastor detained again after prison release

BANGKOK (AP) — A prominent Christian church leader and human rights advocate from Myanmar’s Kachin ethnic minority was detained by the authorities just hours after he was released from prison under an amnesty by the military government, a relative, a colleague and local media said Thursday.

The Reverend Hkalam Samson, former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention and chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, was among the 3,300 prisoners released nationwide on Wednesday to mark the traditional Thingyan New Year holiday. The assembly is an umbrella organisation uniting religious and civil society groups with political organisations promoting Kachin rights, including autonomy from Myanmar’s central government.

Kachin state, in northern Myanmar, has been the scene of intermittent warfare for decades between the army and well-organised and -armed Kachin guerrillas.

Samson had been warmly welcomed by family and friends outside the gate of the prison in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, when he was released early Wednesday afternoon.

At around 10pm Wednesday, however, security forces and officials came to his home in the city and took him away, said one of his relatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared arrest by the authorities.

She said members of his family were told by the authorities that they were taking him temporarily for his safety. She added that his family, friends and members of other local Christian communities were seeking updated information and to get him released.

A member of the Kachin Baptist Convention told The Associated Press that Samson’s wife, Zung Nyaw, and a member of the Kachin-based Peace-talk Creation Group were taken together with him to Myitkyina prison, where Samson had been held for 16 months.

The Baptist Convention member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, said that the three were taken after being told they needed to answer a few questions. No further explanation was given.

Samson is a prominent advocate of the human rights of the ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar and in 2019 was part of a delegation that met then-US President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss the military’s abuse of ethnic minorities. He was detained in December 2022 while preparing to fly to Thailand for a health checkup, and in April last year was handed a six-year prison term after being convicted of violating laws on unlawful association, incitement and counter-terrorism.

Christians make up about 6 per cent of Myanmar’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population, but about 34 per cent of Kachin’s estimated 1.7 million population.

Human rights groups said minority religions including Christians have been significantly persecuted in Myanmar since an army takeover in 2021, when the military ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and suppressed nonviolent protests, triggering armed resistance that has led to civil war.

Kachin guerrillas have played a large role in the resistance movemen t uniting armed ethnic minority groups with pro-democracy fighters who organised against military rule.

In March, another Baptist pastor was shot dead at the computer shop where he worked in Mogaung township, in Kachin, US Government funded Radio Free Asia reported last month.

Its report said 47-year-old Nammye Hkun Jaw Li, also from the Kachin Baptist Convention, had been active in protests against the military, and as a local community religious leader.

A former township executive of the KBC, he was also active with a grassroots anti-drug organisation called Pat Jasan, which is controversial for allegedly employing violence as part of its drug eradication activities.

Frontier areas in Myanmar have historically been major areas for drug production, especially the region where its borders meet with those of Laos and Thailand, known as the Golden Triangle. Opium, used to make heroin, used to be the major illicit product. In recent decades it has been supplanted by methamphetamine, trafficked all over Asia and beyond, but as war in Myanmar has disrupted law enforcement and farmers’ abilities to grow food crops, opium and heroin production have rebounded.

The military government also announced this week that Myanmar’s jailed former leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been moved from prison to house arrest as a health measure due to a heat wave, Suu Kyi, 78, and Win Myint, the 72-year-old former president of her ousted government, were among the elderly and infirm prisoners moved to house arrest because of the severe heat, military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told foreign media representatives.

Hkalam Samson poses for photography together with his wife after his release from the prison in Myintkyina township in Kachin state, Myanmar on April 17. PHOTO: AP