By SEAN GLEESON | FRONTIER
YANGON — Two Kachin men who escorted reporters to the site of an alleged Tatmadaw airstrike in northern Shan State have been given lengthy prison terms, in a case that has sparked international condemnation and renewed attention on the protracted civil conflicts in Myanmar’s north.
Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 67, and Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, were both convicted under the Unlawful Associations Act for their alleged support of the Kachin Independence Army and under the Import Export Act for operating motorcycles without a licence.
The duo, both members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, was sentenced to two years and three months’ imprisonment after a 10-month trial at the Lashio District Court.
Nawng Lat received an additional two-year sentence for defamation following a December 2016 interview with Voice of America, during which he relayed information on an alleged Tatmadaw airstrike campaign in Mongko Township the previous month.
News of Friday’s verdict was met with dismay.
“How many more human rights defenders have to be locked up before the world realises that the Myanmar military have no intention of being held to account for their crimes?” said Mr David Baulk of regional watchdog Fortify Rights. “There are people who believe that the military is earnest in its rhetoric about changing its ways. They would do well to look at the list of people who are in jail for speaking truth to power.”
Late last year the pair had led reporters to a site in Mongko to showcase buildings damaged during clashes between the Tatmadaw and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of ethnic armed groups operating in the area. The tour included a trip to the township’s severely damaged St Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which the duo said had suffered an aerial bombardment at the hands of the Myanmar Air Force.
Military authorities denied responsibility for damage to the church, claiming instead that the building was being used as an arms cache by insurgent groups — a claim vehemently disputed by local church authorities.
On Christmas Eve, a week after the publication of press reports on the damaged church, the men were taken into military custody and held incommunicado for a month. Family members feared the pair had been killed.
The prosecution’s case relied on statements signed by the men during their time in military custody, which defence lawyers said had been signed under “severe duress”, according to a joint statement by Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch.
Friday’s sentence will take into account time served from the pair’s transfer into civilian custody on January 22.
Last year’s clashes in Mongko and other areas of northern Shan State began after ethnic armed groups besieged a section of the Muse-Lashio Highway, a road that facilitates around a third of Myanmar’s official cross-border trade.
The campaign was launched in response to renewed military pressure against strongholds of the KIA and Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Kachin and northern Shan states from mid-2016.
June marked the sixth year of the resumption of hostilities between the KIA and the Tatmadaw following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire. Last year saw the KIA’s expulsion from key strategic posts around Laiza, the group’s headquarters on the Kachin-China border, in some of the fiercest clashes since the military’s 2013 siege of Laiza and the surrounding area.
The KIA has resisted pressure to participate in the government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and official peace forums, while the TNLA has been excluded from participating unless it issues a commitment to unilateral disarmament.
Nearly 100,000 civilians remain displaced by conflict across Kachin and northern Shan states, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.