Myanmar drops lawsuit against Baptist leader who met with Trump

Myanmar’s military on Monday dropped a lawsuit against a Burmese Baptist leader for comments about human rights he made in a White House meeting with President Donald Trump in July.

The Rev. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention, was due to appear in court in a lawsuit filed last month by a military officer accusing the pastor of defamation for discussing “the promotion of democracy and federalism in Myanmar” with Trump. The brief meeting in the Oval Office came after Samson and another Kachin Baptist leader testified in July at a Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held by the U.S. State Department.

President Trump listens to Hkalam Samson speak about Myanmar’s ethnic and religious affairs at the White House on July 17. (Screenshot from White House video)

Instead, according to The Irrawaddy — a website founded by Burmese exiles living in Thailand — the presiding judge said Monday the plaintiff has withdrawn his legal complaint and the court will not proceed with any legal prosecution against the pastor.

An e-newsletter from the Baptist World Alliance on Sept. 9 urged Baptists around the globe to thank “God for this answer to prayer and continue to pray for the people of Myanmar.”

The judge did not say why the case was dropped, but a military official reportedly said the decision was voluntary and not due to any outside pressure.

The State Department said Sept. 5 the United States government was “deeply concerned” about the legal complaint against Samson and that a decision by Myanmar to pursue the case would be “deeply troubling.”

U.S.-based religious groups including American Baptist Churches USA, Baptist World Alliance and National Council of Churches all voiced concern about Samson’s safety and possible violations of his human rights after he told President Trump there is no religious freedom in Myanmar and thanked the U.S. for imposing sanctions against Myanmar military leaders over violence against Rohingya Muslims.

Another Kachin Baptist leader, Lanjaw Gam Seng, while in America spoke to reporters describing harsh treatment during his 16 months in prison after he helped journalists document military attacks on civilian targets including the 2016 bombing of a Catholic Church.

Both U.S. and United Nations officials monitored their safe return to Myanmar in mid-August, but two weeks later Lieutenant-Colonel Than Htike from the Myanmar military’s Northern Command based in Kachin State filed a legal complaint citing a live broadcast of Samson’s conversation with the U.S. president that appeared on Facebook.

American Baptist ties with Myanmar date back to the arrival of Adoniram and Ann Judson, the first Protestant missionaries to the country then known as Burma, in 1813. Another Baptist missionary named Luther Rice returned to the U.S. to raise funds for foreign missions, leading to formation of what is today the American Baptist Churches USA in 1814.

More recently a number of declining Baptist churches in the United States have been revitalized by the influx of largely Baptist ethnic groups from Myanmar given asylum as refugees fleeing violence in their homeland.

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