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After Meeting With Trump, a Myanmar Clergyman Could Be Prosecuted

BANGKOK — The Baptist minister from Myanmar had less than 60 seconds in the Oval Office to tell President Trump about the mistreatment and abuse his people suffer.

The minister, Hkalam Samson, told the president in July that ethnic groups in his homeland were being “oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government” and thanked him for imposing sanctions on four top generals.

Now, as if to prove Mr. Samson right, a colonel in the Myanmar Army has gone to court seeking to have the minister prosecuted for his comments about the military during that conversation with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Samson, who returned home to the northern Myanmar city of Myitkyina after his White House visit, said he was waiting to see whether a court would accept the colonel’s complaint. The nature of the complaint was unclear, but in similar cases, the military has taken advantage of Myanmar’s sweeping criminal defamation laws. A judge is expected to rule next week whether the case can proceed.

“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,” Mr. Samson said in an interview.

United States officials have not spoken publicly about Mr. Samson’s case. But privately they expressed concern that an invited White House guest could face prison at home for what he said to the president. Mr. Samson visited the White House with religious leaders from around the world whose communities have been persecuted because of their faith.

On July 16, the day before Mr. Samson visited the White House, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and three of his highest-ranking officers for their roles in a campaign against ethnic Muslims that American officials have condemned as ethnic cleansing.

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, ruled Myanmar for nearly half a century until 2011, when it began sharing power with civilian leaders. But it still retains extraordinary authority over the affairs of the country, formerly known as Burma.

Over the last three years, the military has filed dozens of defamation complaints against its critics. As with the complaint against Mr. Samson, all the cases have been brought by colonels.

Last week, the prominent filmmaker and human rights activist U Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was sentenced to a year in prison for posting comments critical of the military on Facebook. He underwent surgery for liver cancer late last year but spent months in jail awaiting trial.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the civilian government who controls a large majority in Parliament, could have repealed the country’s numerous criminal defamation laws any time in the last three years. Instead, the party of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has used the defamation laws to go after its own critics.

Mr. Samson is the president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and a leading rights advocate for the Kachin ethnic people, who are predominantly Baptist and live in northern Myanmar.

Kachin State is believed to hold the world’s largest reserve of jade, a source of tremendous profit for companies controlled by the Tatmadaw. The military and the Kachin Independence Army have been fighting on and off for decades.

More than 100,000 civilians have fled recent fighting and Mr. Samson has been working to assist them.

Mr. Samson, a longtime representative of his people, has visited the United States numerous times and had previously met Mr. Trump. He also met President Obama twice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Jimmy Carter when they traveled to Yangon, Myanmar’s main city.

In July, Mr. Samson was attending a conference on religious freedom in Washington when he and about 20 other attendees were invited to the impromptu meeting with Mr. Trump.

“With us today are men and women of many different religious traditions from many different countries,” Mr. Trump said while seated at his Oval Office desk. “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.”

The most notable moment of the meeting at the time was Mr. Trump’s awkward exchange with Nadia Murad, who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against mass rape in war. Mr. Trump appeared surprised that she had received the award.

Mr. Samson’s comments on the Myanmar military might have gone largely unnoticed if the Tatmadaw had not taken offense.

“As Christians in Myanmar, we are very being oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” he told Mr. Trump in his hurried remarks. “We don’t have a chance, many, for religious freedom.”

Wearing a traditional Kachin coat and cap, he asked Mr. Trump for help in bringing democracy to Myanmar and thanked him for the new sanctions.

“Yes, yes, we did something,” the president replied. “Thank you. Appreciate it very much.”

The complaint against Mr. Samson was brought by Lt. Col. Than Htike and came to light after a judge’s letter about it surfaced on Facebook.

The colonel’s complaint notes that the minister’s remarks were posted on the Facebook page of ABC News, one of several American news organizations to post or broadcast video of the meeting.

The military’s spokesman, Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, who earlier said the military must take action to “defend its dignity,” did not respond to questions about Mr. Samson. Lt. Col Than Htike also did not respond to requests for comment.

Maung Saung Kha, the founder of Athan, a Yangon-based free speech group, who spent six months in jail for insulting a former president, said Mr. Samson was being punished for speaking honestly about the country.

“The military wants to shut the mouths of people who speak the truth and they are really sensitive,” he said. “The military threatens people not to speak the truth even when they are abroad.”

Despite the prospect of being jailed for months or years, Mr. Samson said the legal process was a big improvement over decades of military impunity in ethnic areas such as Kachin State.

During that period, he said, 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.”

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