MYANMAR: Baptist leader released but rearrested same day

Hkalam SamsonOn 17 April, to mark Myanmar’s new year festival of Thingyan, officials released 3,300 prisoners. One of them, Baptist pastor Rev Dr Hkalam Samson, was rearrested that night.

Dr Samson (66) was one of 42 prisoners released from Kachin state’s Myitkyina Prison under the new year’s day amnesty. He had served 16 months of a six-year sentence for “crimes” including unlawful association and terrorism. The pastor was released early in the afternoon and was welcomed by friends and family outside the gates of the prison, but at 10 pm that evening security forces and officials came to his home in Myitkyina, the state capital, and detained him.

An unnamed source told Burma News International, “About thirty soldiers initially arrived at his house. Around midnight, the number increased to fifty, and they took away Dr Hkalam Samson. They informed his family it was for interrogation on the orders from higher authorities, assuring his return home the following morning.”

Officials took Dr Samson, his wife Zung Nyaw and a member of the Kachin-based Peace-talk Creation Group to Myitkyina prison, claiming it was for their safety – sources reportedly said that he was being detained under house arrest at the Myitkyina prison guest house – but his family was not told why he had been rearrested, nor what would happen to him, his wife and their fellow-Christian detainee.

Dr Samson is a well-known and respected church leader and is an advisor to and former chair of the Kachin Baptist Convention. He is chair of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, an umbrella organisation for religious and civil society groups and political organisations promoting Kachin rights, including autonomy from Myanmar’s central government, and is internationally known for his humanitarian work and his advocacy for religious and ethnic minorities rights in Myanmar. In July 2019, while in the US to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, he was part of a delegation that met then-US President Donald Trump at the White House and spoke to him about persecution of Christians by the Myanmar military.


Dr Samson was originally detained at Mandalay International Airport on 4 December 2022 as he was about to fly to Bangkok for medical treatment – he suffers from congenital lung problems and high blood pressure. Authorities told him his name was on a no-fly list and questioned him overnight at Central Regional Military Command headquarters.

On 5 December he was put on a plane back to Myitkyina, where he was arrested on landing. At first the charges against him were unclear and it was reported that he was facing prosecution in relation to his teaching in Bible classes, but it was later learned that he had been arrested on charges of unlawful association, inciting opposition to the regime and terrorism, charges that reportedly relate to praying with Christian members of the shadow National Unity Government (which formed after the 2021 military coup to oppose the junta). On 7 April 2023 Myitkyina Prison Court sentenced Dr Samson to six years in prison.

In a press statement issued on 17 April 2023, the US State Department described the charges against Dr Samson as “military-led, manufactured charges” and stated: “Burma’s brutal military regime has targeted Rev Dr Samson, a prominent, well-respected religious figure, for his courageous work, including advocating for freedom of religion or belief. Reverend Dr Samson has devoted his pastoral career to supporting peace efforts, drug eradication, advocating for justice and equality for Kachin Christians and throughout Burma, and facilitating the safe and voluntary return of more than 100,000 displaced Kachin people to their homes.”

On 2 May 2023 Myitkyina Prison Court dismissed Dr Samson’s appeal and the next day his lawyer Daung Nan told Radio Free Asia that she would submit an appeal to the Kachin state court. “When we filed an appeal yesterday, the court summarily dismissed it,” she said. “So, we are going to submit an appeal to the state court. If it doesn’t go well, we will file an appeal to the Supreme Court.”

Myanmar is majority Buddhist and only 4.4 million of its 55 million people are Christians, approximately 8 percent. Kachin is Myanmar’s most northerly state, bordering China and India, and around 35 % of its 1.7 million people are Christians. Like other ethnic and religious minorities in Myanmar, they suffer frequent harassment and persecution by the Tatmadaw (armed forces).

In February 2021 the Tatmadaw carried out a brutal military coup and the following year the Burma Human Rights Network reported that the junta had increased attacks in Chin, Kayah, Karen and Kachin states (all of which contain some majority-Christian regions) and had destroyed dozens of church buildings in airstrikes and artillery shelling.

Read the Church in Chains Myanmar Country Profile.

(Burma News International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Church in Chains Myanmar country Profile, International Christian Concern, Radio Free Asia, Release International, Religion News Service, USCIRF, US State Department)

Image credit: Radio Free Asia