Burmese citizens began peaceful protests for better living standards in mid-August in response to a sudden rise in gas prices in Myanmar. After several hundred Buddhist monks joined them, the Burmese government responded with arrests, a media crackdown, and night raids. It is unclear how many people have been killed in the crackdown.
Myanmar, which was known as Burma before a 1962 military coup, has a long history of rights abusesand peaceful protest. National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been under house arrest for almost a decade. Last week Burma's military leader Gen Than Shwe, agreed to meet with her if she would abandon her support of international sanctions on Burma and her "confrontational" stance.
Two ethnic groupsthe Karen and the Chinhave historical ties to Christianity. The U. S. State Department estimates that 3 percent of the country's 47 million people are Baptist.
Burmese Christians have been specifically targeted by the regime. Last March, Christian Solidarity Worldwide obtained a leaked government document entitled "Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma."
Pastor David, a Burmese church planter who has been working in Myanmar for the last few years, spoke with CT about the situation of Christians in the country.
What's happening with the protests? Why was the sudden rise in oil prices the catalyst?
The government doubled the price on the morning of August the 15th without any prior notice to the public. So what happened is that there was a sudden raise in the price, buses and public transportation cannot operate. There is simply no public transportation, so people who need to go to work got stranded. There was a lot of chaos.
I was still in the country at that time and I knew at that moment that something was going to happen. Now before the raising of oil prices, there was a convention going on on the northern side of Rangoon. And there was already quite an atmosphere in the country: There were officials going about, raiding churches.
In fact, the Bible school that I have the privilege of directingwe had to shut it down on the last week of September with all this going on.
In the midst of that, they doubled the [oil] prices, and that really sparked the fire. And that's when people said, "we can't stand this anymore," and they began to rally. And at first it was a very small rally. It wasn't getting any international attention. It was only when the Buddhist monks began to come out and began to rally that the international community began to focus their attention on Burma.
Why did the government let the protests go on for so long before cracking down? Is that usual?
I was very surprised. The best I can do here is speculation: Within the government there are already tensions. There are four big generals that are fighting for power, and they don't really share values or worldviews. So there's already a clash between them. I think they take the time among themselves as to how to best handle the [rallies] and it probably took some time before they came back and decided to crack down. I think it's [because] of the internal tactics and discussion that is taking place [within the Burmese government].
Have Christians been involved in the protests?
As a church, in the name of the church, we don't usually do that. But I know there are Christians who are very much into pushing for this kind of activity. But there's no way we can say that certain Christians participated.
Would they be targeted because they're Christians?
Christians usually don't have the same protection that a monk would have, simply because we are Christian and they are Buddhist. But for the monks who rally and demonstrate, there is still the moral respect that they have. There is a tradition that grants them some protections, and they enjoyed that in the midst of their rally. But we as Christians, who are seen as secondary citizens, do not have that [protection]. Even if there's no rally taking place, the mere fact that we meet in the church, that we teach classes in the Bible schoolthey're already nervous about that, and they come back just to interfere, to know what's going on.
In fact, during this rally, I have been in constant communication with my assistant, and he told me that officials come to the school three or four times a day, perhaps to spy on whether we participated in the rally or are just staying at home. There is a constant monitoring of Christians.
Have you heard about any Christians who have undergone raids or questioning?
Yes. Since I do not have their permission, I don't think I can mention their names, but there are a couple pastors who have been taken, partly because they visited their folks and the government may be suspicious of what they're doing.
Another thing that happens in our own experience happened on the 17th of Augustthe local officials came to our school at about 1:30 in the morning and knocked the door and began to check who was sleeping in the school. Now, in Burma, we have to register with local officials every four days how many people are sleeping and in whose house and why. So, [officials] came with that registration and they began to count how many people were sleeping in the school. And by God's providence, the list and the people who were sleeping in the school matched, so there's nothing [the officials] could do. But I have heard a lot of reports that they knock from house to house and do that. Especially to Christians.
Has anyone disappeared?
I don't know of any Christians who have disappeared.
Is there a lot of internal displacement in Burma?
At this point, I am sure that those people who are really rallying are having to flee for their lives. Because right now the government is doing the follow-up work. Now that they have all their cameras and have all the pictures of people who demonstrated. That happened back in 1988. It was months before the government tracked down all the people who were on the streets rallying.
The same thing happens even now: that they track down people who have been rallying. There are a lot of reports going around that at nighttime, the government would raid houses. [Officials] would not ask questions, but they would just take [the people who allegedly participated in rallies], and so far they've never come back.
How does this crackdown compare to the one in 1988?
I am not sure; it might even get worse than the 1988 event. I think they are working hard to do as much tracking down as possible.
What happened to the church in 1988?
Before then the church was quite free, but from then on, the church began to have more restrictions, so I do not know if there is any specific attention given to the church. I think they always see the church as connected to the Western world. And that's when they began to be suspicious of the churches.
What is the Christian population in Burma?
There has been some discussion of Christian leaders as to what percentage are actually Christian. More conservative studies would say 6% but a more open study would say 10%. I'm in the more middle way where I would say in my best opinion with all the travels that I've had, that roughly 8% are Christians. Half of that 8% would be mainline denominations, and the rest would be evangelical Christians. There is a small section of Roman Catholics. I think they compose 2%, maybe. So evangelical Christians are not that many.
There are different denominations and different organizations. And the country has not had any foreign missionaries since 1966, when the government expelled all the missionaries. Since then, all the work has been done by the national leadership.
How do pastors get educated? Are there seminaries?
There was one ecumenical seminary that was started back in the 1920s that got recognized, and they can freely have their education there. But it's not as free as what you would see going on in some of the pagodas or monasteries. Relative to some of the evangelical seminaries, they have enjoyed significant freedom.
We opened a Bible school, but we do not have any government recognition. So, we go through enormous challenges. Sometimes, they would come in the middle of class, and we would have to quickly put down our books and run. Sometimes they would take us to their offices and give us incredible troubles. And at times they would even close the school facilities.
Does the same thing happen to Christian ethnic groups besides the Chin?
The Karen are mostly mainline Baptist. Most of the mainline churches have recognition because they have been there for a long time and have been able to obtain their permits before the government changed its policies on religious freedom. Some evangelicals do not have permits because they started their ministries after the government changed its policiesthose people do not enjoy the same freedom.
Do you think the government targets Christians because they are Christians?
I think this falls between the ethnic and religious line. Chin and Karen [have the most Christians of any of the seven] states in the country. And a lot of the Chin have a lot of education. That has to do with how we understand the world, how we understand our theology and how our theology has informed our life and our worldview.
When [the government] saw the significant education that the Chin were able to have in the last 20 - 30 years, they began to build some defensive walls against them. So I think that the reason would be they are Chin and they have a lot of education, plus they are Christians.
Is there solidarity among different denominations?
Yes and no. To some extent, unfortunately, there has been a strong denominationalism in some circles, but in the past 1015 years there have been some efforts to do interdenominational activities together. So we begin to see the new generation of leadership in the church emerge. So even the face of Christianity in the country is gradually changing.
What about the relationship of Christians to Buddhists?
The answer can come in two forms. The ecumenicals would look much [closer to the] Buddhists. There's a lot of dialogues taking place [between ecumenical Christians and Buddhists].
But as for me, coming from an evangelical, we see various religions together, discussing some issues and having socials. But when it comes to our understanding of God and salvation, we are very different.
When I travel to remote villages and do church planting, sometimes the pressure comes not from the local officials but from the Buddhist leaders, because they know that our targets are their people. So there's a defensive wall that is built around them, and there's a lot of prejudices going on even before we start to do anything.
So it can be sweet, but in most cases, it's a sour relationship.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Asia sent out a press release condemning the "violent attack on Buddhist monks and civilians who were engaged in peaceful protest in Burma during the past week."
I would pretty much share the same feeling. I have a high respect for those monks and I think in many ways it's an embarrassment for many of us ChristiansI wish we could just rise up as a church, but that's just not how that situation's worked out. Again, I would say that I'm in full support of [the monks and protesters]. And I think most evangelicals admire their courage, their willingness to sacrifice the favor that they get from the government, and their willingness to even sacrifice their lives. We would give them high respect for that.
What do Burmese pastors preach about the government?
We pretty much do not talk about government issues when we preach, knowing that in most of our services there are informants. Informants get their money whether they bring the right information or not. So if we say 1 word, they end up making 50 words out of our mouths.
I wish I could preach on Romans 13, where Paul begins to talk about governmental issues, but that is the subject that most of us would shy away from. Although in small-group discussions, we would talk about it and bitterness towards government. But publicly, from a pulpit, we tend to shy away from those issues.
What would happen if Aung San Suu Kyi were released?
I think full religious freedom would be restored, because significant Christian presence would come in, particularly from people outside who are involved in this. In terms of religious freedom, I think that would be a step forward. We would definitely look forward to that.
Economically, the country's definitely going to improve. But I am not sure in terms of our society, I am not sure if we are ready for an overnight change. I think it would take time. And I would expect some turbulence within the next 34 years. Even if there were to be a change in the political leadership.
What would happen if China and India put pressure on Myanmar's government for reforms?
I don't think the government would listen, because for them what is most important is not their reputation with the international community or even with their close allies such as India and China. I think they see it more in terms of personal benefits, personal gain, in terms of power. They would do anything just to keep their power.
What will happen when the protests die down?
It could be pretty complicated. But I think even if [the situation] is going in a worse direction, it wouldn't last very longit could dramatically reverse and really point toward democracy.
I don't think the next generation of military leadership is willing to take the matter into their hands. They would like to give up their power to people. The people in power right nowthey are holding onto a snake. They don't like holding onto a snake; they want to let it go. But they are afraid that at the moment they let it go, it's going to bite them. I don't think the younger generals would come up and say, "I want to take power, and I'm going to continue the oppression."
What can Westerners be doing about this?
Promoting what is going on to the news and rallying on the Burmese embassies. Most of all, [it would help] for Christians to pray for the country and especially the Christians in Burma. Your praying and your identifying yourself with the struggle we are going through would mean so much for us.
What could people be praying for?
Right now, there's chaos. The prices are rising, and most Christians are very poor. They are struggling to buy basic necessities. It has been a great challenge that the pastors go through. They have obligations not only to provide for their families but to care for their flocks. When the prices are going up, it's very hard. It's really the pastors who are suffering most in terms of needing basic necessities.
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Other Christianity Today articles on Myanmar and the Burmese people include:
'Destroy the Christian Religion' | Campaign against Christians presses problem with refugee resettlement. (March 14, 2007)
The Town that Loves Refugees | Christians in Utica, New York are resettling the world one displaced soul at a time. (February 15, 2007)
Red-Light Rescue | The 'business' of helping the sexually exploited help themselves. (December 19, 2006)
Homeland Security's Catch-22 for Exiles | 'Ridiculous' interpretation of law bars thousands. (May 1, 2006)
Burma's Almost Forgotten | Christians find themselves battered by the world's longest civil war and a brutally repressive regime. (March 1, 2004)
Compassion Confusion | We should serve the needy even when it has bad political consequences. (Aug. 28, 2001)
The Homeless Church of Myanmar | In, after decades of cruel military regimes, democratic elections were held in Myanmar, and the National League for Democracy party won with over 80 percent of the vote. The military ignored 1990 the election results, seized control, and has set up the illegitimate (and wrongly named) State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government. (Oct. 5, 1998)
Ethnic Politics Suppresses Outreach | The stunning success of Christian outreach among some ethnic minorities in Asia has fueled religious resentment and repression. (May 19, 1997)
Christian History & Biography has an issue on Adoniram Judson, a missionary to the Burmese.
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