The whereabouts of two Baptist pastors who disappeared last month near the Burma-China border remain unknown, and human rights organisations have called on the government to immediately investigate.
Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, and Dumdaw Nawng Lat, 65, were last seen on 24 December travelling to the Byuha Gon military base in Muse Township.
According to a joint statement released by Fortify Rights and Human Rights Watch on Tuesday, Langjaw Gam Seng received a phone call that evening from a man identifying himself as military personnel. The caller reportedly requested that the two men assist with civilians detained at the base. Langjaw Gam Seng and Dumdaw Nawng Lat set off on a motorbike later that evening.
Two weeks before vanishing, the two had led a journalist from The Irrawaddy to inspect and photograph a Catholic church in the conflict-wracked town of Mongko that was reportedly damaged by military airstrikes.
The government has been locked in fighting with the Kachin Independence Army and a coalition of other ethnic armed groups calling themselves the “Northern Alliance” since 20 November, with the bulk of the violence in the Muse Township area.
Residents say the two men, who are cousins, were last seen en route to the base, but were not heard from again. Their family filed a missing persons report at Myo Ma police station on 3 January.
The government has denied that the two fell afoul of the local military. President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay told UCANews, “According to our ground report, they were taken by the Kachin Independence Army, not the military.”
In Tuesday’s joint statement, the international human rights groups said the pair was “forcibly disappeared” and that there are “grave concerns” for their safety.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia branch, called it a “crucial case” for the current government.
“The nature of the two men’s disappearance means the military has some serious questions to answer. This is a crucial case for [State Counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi and other government leaders to demand cooperation from the army, which has continued to resist civilian authority,” he said in the release.
A leader in the Yangon Kachin Baptist Church, who spoke to DVB on condition of anonymity, said the military continues to act with impunity against the Kachin people.
“The military are always doing whatever they like. Even Aung San Suu Kyi cannot bend them. The military aims to dismantle the Kachin people … and everyone, the government, keeps quiet,” he said.
Amnesty International echoed the call in a separate statement on Tuesday, saying locals in Mongko believe the pastors may have been targeted by the military for assisting the journalist. It called for the immediate release of the two men if they are indeed in custody, “unless they are charged with an internationally recognizable offence and remanded by an independent, civilian court.”
In January 2015, two Kachin teachers were raped and murdered in a Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) compound in northern Shan State, two days after a battalion of officers set up temporary accommodation in Khaung Khar village — only several hundred metres away from the teachers. The case remains unsolved, and both the KBC and the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand have accused the military of a cover-up.
Yanghee Lee, the United Nations human rights envoy for Burma, was briefed on both cases during her tour of Kachin State on 10 January.
Sam Sun, the general-secretary of the KBC in Myitkyina, told DVB the church spoke frankly to Lee about the teachers’ deaths and the missing men.
“She noted down the information we gave her and remarked that the situation has not improved from her last visit. She said she wanted to go to Laiza and Hpakant to meet with Kachin Independence Army leaders, but was denied access by Burmese authorities,” he said.