Burma frees two pastors who were jailed after helping journalists cover military air strikes

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017.REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

The Burmese government has released two Baptist pastors who were jailed last year after they allegedly assisted journalists in covering the devastation caused by military air strikes in Northern Shan State.

Dumdaw Nawng Latt, 65, and his nephew, Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, were released on Tuesday as part of the nation's annual tradition of granting amnesty to prisoners on the first day of the Myanmar New Year.

According to the Associated Press, the government, under newly elected President Win Myint, granted amnesty to a total of 8,490 Myanmar citizens and 51 foreigners.

Nawng Latt was sentenced in October 2017 to four years and three months in prison, while Gam Seng was sentenced to two years and three months.

The two pastors had been accused of having links with the ethnic armed group Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), as well as spying for the organization.

However, critics believe they were arrested for speaking to the media about the air raids and helping local journalists cover the devastation of the bombings.

The two men reportedly led the journalists to the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, which was destroyed in an air strike in November 2016.

Burmese army prosecutor Maj. Kyaw Zin Htun reportedly brought legal charges against the two pastors after reporters released photos and news articles about the attack on the church. Military officials reportedly told journalists to delete the images of the damaged building.

Nawng Latt and Gam Seng, who serve as pastors in the Kachin Baptist Convention, were summoned to an army base in northeastern Burma on Christmas Eve 2016 to assist with the release of detained civilians, but were not seen after that time. The police only confirmed that they were in custody a month after their arrest.

Pastor Zau Ra, secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention in Mong Maung town, said that the two pastors were in good health and that the family came to greet them upon their release.

"They were freed around 4 p.m. yesterday, and they are on their way back home," Zau Ra told Morning Star News.

"We are happy that they were freed, but they spent one year and five months in prison. It is not good for them, their family and even for the convention. They were arrested for being suspicious and sentenced into prison. It was a waste of time, and it was not fair," he added.

Zau Ra urged the authorities to ensure that similar arrests would not take place in the future. "This would harm relationship and trust-building between the government and civilians," he contended.