A Baptist minister from Myanmar who spoke with President Donald Trump about being “oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government” during a visit to the White House could be prosecuted for his comments.
Pastor Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and a leading rights advocate for a predominantly Baptist ethnic group in northern Myanmar known as the Kachin, was part of a group of international religious leaders that recently met with the president to express concerns about religious freedom in their home countries.
“As Christians in Myanmar, we are oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” Samson said. “We don’t have chance, many, for religious freedom.”
During his 60-second speech, the pastor also thanked Trump for imposing sanctions on four top generals for their role in a campaign against ethnic Muslims and called on the U.S. government to focus on bringing “general democracy and federalism” to his country.
Now, Lt. Col. Than Htike, is seeking to prosecute Samson for his criticism of the country’s military, according to the New York Times. The colonel’s complaint accuses Samson of “knowingly giving false information” and notes that the minister’s remarks were posted on the Facebook page of ABC News, violating Myanmar’s “criminal defamation laws.”
A judge is expected to rule next week on whether the case can proceed. If found guilty, Samson could face several months or years in prison.
“There is no freedom of expression for Myanmar citizens wherever you are because you can get in trouble even when you talk about the truth in the White House,” Samson told the Times.
Over the last three years, the country’s military has filed dozens of defamation complaints against its critics, mainly over comments they posted on Facebook. All of the complaints have been brought by colonels.
Samson said the legal process was a big improvement over decades of military impunity in ethnic areas such as Kachin State, when critics of the military would simply vanish.
“If the military was not happy with what we said, they wouldn’t file a lawsuit,” he said. “They would take you anonymously and you would disappear anonymously.”
The Kachin Post reported that Samson rejected an offer to drop the suit if he apologized for his comments, stating, “I do not want to trade off the truth for my own individual escape.”
In July, Samson was in Washington for the U.S. State Department’s three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom when he and about 20 other attendees were invited to the impromptu meeting with Trump.
“With us today are men and women of many different religious traditions from many different countries,” Trump said at the time. “But what you have in common is each of you has suffered tremendously for your faith. You’ve endured harassment, threats, attacks, trials, imprisonment and torture.”
Privately, according to the Times, Trump officials expressed concern that speaking about religious persecution in the Oval Office could open testifiers up to increased persecution in their homelands.
Samson is not the only attendee to receive backlash for his comments: Priya Saha, an organizing secretaries for the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council in Bangladesh, was temporarily expelled for “anti-disciplinary activities” after she told Trump that 37 million people have disappeared from the Asian nation.
“Sir, I am from Bangladesh. Here is 37 million Hindu, Buddhist and Christian are disappeared,” Saha told Trump during the meeting. “Please help us, the Bangladeshi people. We want to stay in our country. Still, there is 18 million minority people. Please help us. We don’t want to leave our country.”
“I have lost my home, they burned my home and they have taken my land,” she continued. “But no judgment has yet taken place.”
The president followed up by asking Saha who took the land and the home.
“The Muslim fundamentalist group,” she responded. “Always, they are getting the political shelter. Always.”
A statement from the foreign ministry claimed that Saha’s comments were “blatant lies.” The government also accused Saha of having an “ulterior motive” and said that it expects the U.S. organizers of the ministerial to invite responsible individuals.