Update (April 10):
On Good Friday, Myanmar’s military junta sentenced Hkalam Samson, the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention, to six years in prison on charges of terrorism, unlawful association, and inciting opposition. Hkalam denies the charges, which international rights groups and the Kachin diaspora believe to be politically motivated.
The first two charges stem from Hkalam’s 2022 trip to Laiza in Kachin state, where he met with Kachin leader Duwa Lashi La, the head of Myanmar’s government-in-exile, and General Sumlut Gunmaw, the vice chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, which has long fought against the Myanmar military.
The third charge is the result of a Zoom prayer meeting with Kachin Christian where he called the young people to build “the nation in Christ,” according to the The New York Times.
“He is a man who knows God and loves God,” Hkalam’s wife, Zung Nyaw told the Times. “He is a preacher, so he has no enemies. He is a person who sacrifices himself and helps others.”
In July 2019, Hkalam Samson, a pastor from a predominantly Christian ethnic group in Myanmar, met with President Donald Trump at the Oval Office. Standing with a group of victims of religious persecution from around the world, he shared how the Kachin people were “oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government” and thanked the Trump administration for placing sanctions on four top generals.
Three and a half years and one military coup later, Hkalam was arrested at the Mandalay International Airport on December 4. The junta charged him with unlawful association and breaking the country’s counterterrorism law for meeting with Kachin armed forces and praying with the leaders of Myanmar ’s government in exile, the National Unity Government. Hkalam, the former head of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), faces up to 13 years in prison.
At the time of his arrest, 65-year-old Hkalam was traveling to Bangkok for medical appointments. His family is now concerned for his health: In January, his wife said he was suffering from pneumonia and high blood pressure, and she had not been allowed to send him medicine or food.
Known internationally for his diplomacy and peacemaking skills, Hkalam has been a leading advocate for the Kachin people, who have been engaged in an ongoing civil war with the military junta for decades. Calls for Hkalam ’s release have sounded from around the globe, including from the U.S. State Department, human rights groups, and the Kachin diaspora.
“He's the image of Kachin Baptist churches, and he's the image of the Kachin people,” said Labya La Seng, the pastor of Dallas-Fort Worth Kachin Baptist Church and president of the Kachin American Baptist Association.
A voice for the Kachin
The Kachin are predominantly Baptist due to the work of American Baptist missionaries in the 19th century. While Adoniram Judson was the first Protestant missionary to arrive in Myanmar in 1813, mission work among the Kachin began in 1877. William Henry Roberts baptized the first seven Kachin Christians in 1882 and they started the first Kachin church later that year. The KBC was founded in 1910 and now includes more than 300 churches.
Before his arrest, Hkalam advised the KBC and served as the chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, a platform for the Kachin people to congregate and hold intercommunity dialogue.
A longtime representative of the Kachin, Hkalam met with not only Trump but also President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former president Jimmy Carter (in 2013) when they visited Myanmar, according to The New York Times.
His comments at the 2019 meeting with Trump caught the attention of military officers in Myanmar, leading Lt. Col. Than Htike to file a complaint against Hkalam. The pastor said he changed his prepared comments last minute to include calling out the military junta ’s abuses due to a move of the Holy Spirit, according to Frontier Myanmar.
Before his scheduled court date, Hkalam refused to apologize even as he was told the case would be withdrawn if he did so.
“I do not want to trade off the truth for my own individual escape,” Hkalam told Frontier Myanmar. “I would like to give respect to all who are murdered, raped, and tortured wrongfully during 60 years of blood-shedding oppressions,” Hkalam said.
The military later withdrew the complaint—without an apology from Hkalam.
Since the February 2021 military coup, fighting between the Kachin armed forces and the Myanmar military has intensified. In October 2022, a junta airstrike targeting a Kachin Independence Organization concert in Hpakant township killed 60 people. Hkalam coordinated medical aid for those injured and helped arrange the funerals of the victims. Later he held a prayer meeting in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina for those killed.
In a press briefing in February, State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Hkalam ’s arrested and called for his immediate release.
"We are extremely concerned for his well-being and safety and urge our partners and allies to join us in calling on the regime to drop all charges and immediately and unconditionally release Reverend Samson," Price said.
He also noted that the pastor ’s “incredible work advocating for religious freedom, justice, peace, and accountability should be celebrated and replicated, not condemned.”
‘Anybody could be the next victim’
When Labya, who immigrated to the United States in 1999, heard the news of Hkalam ’s arrest, he was shocked that the junta “dare to touch Dr. Hkalam without any hesitation.” At the same time, he was not surprised because of the junta ’s brutal actions since the coup.
“I’m not yet ready to accept the fact that a man like Dr. Hkalam was detained. He is not an ordinary person; he is a man who met the US president,” Labya said. “This simply shows the defiance of the military council and [its challenge to] the free world.”
While Labya differed with Hkalam on views of ecclesiastical polity among Kachin Baptist churches, he has great respect for Hkalam and applauded his relentless advocacy for justice in their homeland. He remembers in 2011, Hkalam visited Labya ’s church and preached a message from Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an never-failing stream,” encouraging the church to demonstrate their faith through love, mercy, and justice. This verse has become the battle hymn of Kachin Baptists in the US.
“Justice is not a matter of self-interest but of a humble commitment to the well-being of all who are made in God ’s image,” Labya said.
Gum San Nsang, president of the Kachin Alliance (a network of US-based Kachin communities) and chair of the World Kachin Congress, worked with Hkalam over the years on projects relating to internally displaced people, drug eradication, religious liberty, and the peaceful coexistence of ethnic groups in Myanmar. Nsang, who is based in Washington, D.C., helped arrange Hkalam ’s meeting with Trump, and on the same trip, the two attended the International Religious Freedom summit.
Since his friend ’s detainment, Nsang has urged the United Nations and the US government to use diplomatic leverage to help release Hkalam. “We have not directly engaged the coup regime, because they are using Rev. Samson's detention as a political tool,” Nsang said.
Nsang described the grim reality of his homeland today, where airstrikes, bombing raids, and “every crime known to men” are common occurrences. As recently as last week, soldiers entered a tea shop in Hpakant township and beat the owner, his wife, his daughter, and four customers before arresting them. The military claimed they heard a report that the owner ’s daughter made political posts on Facebook.
“The entire Kachin region’s population is on emergency alert,” Nsang said. “Everyone is in fear of being detained, arrested, or killed. When a prominent religious leader like Rev. Samson could be picked up, snatched away, and secretly interrogated for over 20 days with no news, anybody could be the next victim.”
Remembering their homeland
For the Kachin in the US, returning to their homeland has now become a perilous undertaking and a trip most wouldn’t dare make as the war rages on. Labya said he ’s afraid to fly into the country after what happened to Hkalam, and the reality of not being able to freely travel to Myanmar is difficult to face.
Still, Kachin Christians “need to remember we are to play the role of our brother ’s keeper,” Labya said, referring to Genesis 4:9. “We're not in a position to keep our brothers absolutely safe, but we are mandated to do whatever we can to speak up for them, making sure that we are going to reach out to them in their needs, in their distress.”
That means writing members of Congress to use their diplomatic power to ensure the Myanmar government respects the rights of all ethnic minorities, not just the Kachin. It also means working with other Kachin diaspora groups to advocate for Hkalam.
On March 12, Labya gathered with four other Kachin churches in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for an interdenominational service. The immigrants and refugees joined together to worship, hear a pastoral message on justice, and pray for peace in Myanmar. The service included calls for prayer and solidarity with those who are imprisoned unjustly for a righteous cause.
The newly formed DFW Kachin Christian Network plans to continue the joint services with different churches hosting.
“We are really, really praying that our churches back home, even [those] in the US, will be working together and holding to the Word of God and sharing in the legacy those American missionaries left behind,” Labya said.