The Myanmar military has dropped a criminal complaint against a Baptist leader who told President Donald Trump in July that the Christian community has been “oppressed and tortured” by the Southeast Asian country’s military government.
Radio Free Asia reports that judge Than Tun of the Myitkyina Township Court announced Monday that Lt. Col. Than Htike of the northern command has submitted a request to withdraw a criminal lawsuit he lodged against Rev. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).
As a result, the court will not proceed with a prosecution of Samson for alleged criminal defamation.
Samson’s Kachin Baptist Convention has provided aid and shelter to thousands of people displaced by the violence between the military and rebel fighters in the northern Kachin state.
As advocates have long spoken out about abuses committed against civilian communities in Kachin, Samson traveled to Washington, D.C. this summer to take part in the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and spoke out about the suffering Christians in Kachin are facing.
The ministerial featured persecuted believers, human rights activists and political leaders from across the globe.
During the three-day ministerial in July, a group of nearly 30 survivors of religious persecution took a trip to the White House and participated in a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. The meeting was broadcasted on the internet for the world to see and Samson was among the many survivors who got a few words in with Trump during the meeting.
“I’m ... from Baptist Convention from Northern Burma. And then, as Christians in Myanmar, we are very been oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” Samson said.
“And then, we don’t have chance, many, for religious freedom. And also, ethnic armed groups fight against the central military government. So, please, American government focus on ethnic people and the ethnic leader to get general democracy and federalism.”
Samson also thanked Trump for his administration issuing sanctions against Myanmar Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders responsible for the human rights abuses committed against the Rohingya Muslim community in the Rakhine state in 2017. Many have called the military’s abuses against the Rohingya community a “genocide.”
On Aug. 26, Htike filed the criminal complaint, accusing Samson of violating the country’s broad criminal defamation laws, which have often been taken advantage of by the military.
“Lieutenant Colonel Than Htike, who had filed the case, submitted a request to settle and withdraw the case on Sept. 9,” the judge was quoted as saying Monday. “So the court has allowed the settlement in accordance with legal procedure[s]… Dr. Hkalam Samson has been acquitted.”
The New York Times reported in August that at least 78 people in Myanmar have faced defamation charges brought by military officers over comments they have made publicly and three dozen have either been sentenced to prison or are jailed while awaiting trial.
Samson told RFA that he has not received official notice that his case had been dropped but is thankful to hear the news that the complaint has been withdrawn.
Additionally, Samson told The Irrawaddy, a website founded by Burmese exiles in Thailand, that there was no negotiation between the Kachin Baptist Convention and the military that led to the military leader’s decision to withdraw the case.
“I’m happy about the [Myanmar military’s] constructive decision,” Samson was quoted as saying. “Growing international [pressure] probably led to the decision.”
The withdraw of the complaint followed the U.S. State Department’s announcement last week that it was “deeply concerned” about the criminal case against Samson.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that the criminal complaint against Samson “seeks to unduly limit his freedom of expression and potentially could disrupt his critical work on behalf of tens of thousands of internally displaced people.”
“Freedom of expression, including speaking out in support of human rights is a protected right in the International Covenant on civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and should not be treated as a crime,” Ortagus added.
“Reverend Samson has worked tirelessly to obtain durable solutions for people displaced by the situation in Kachin State. The United States is committed to promoting freedom of expression and religious freedom for all and to promoting accountability for violations or abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms. A decision to pursue this criminal complaint and arrest Reverend Samson on the basis of his protected speech would be deeply troubling."
Myanmar military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun refuted the idea that the case against Samson was withdrawn because of pressure from the U.S. government.
“We withdrew the case before the court decided whether Dr. Hkalam Samson was to be charged,” the spokesperson said, according to RFA. “The reason for dropping the case is based on free will and not because of any pressure.”
Myanmar is ranked as the 18th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List. Additionally, Myanmar is recognized by the State Department as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.