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Fear, Grief, then Supernatural Peace: Myanmar Christians Process Draft

While many young people feel helpless over the news of the conscription law, believers see an opening for ministry.
Fear, Grief, then Supernatural Peace: Myanmar Christians Process Draft
Image: Aung Shine Oo / AP Images
Military officers marching in Myanmar.

When Kyaw Sone, a 27-year-old seminary student in Yangon, Myanmar, heard the news last month that the government was conscripting young men and women amid the country’s civil war, he felt “very, very sad.”

“These are our oppressors and now we have to fight for them,” he said of the military junta that overthrew the elected government in a coup three years ago. Since then, civilians—including many of Kyaw Sone’s Christian friends—have fled to the jungles to join resistance groups fighting the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military. “In my flesh, I [also] want to fight them,” Kyaw Sone added. (CT has agreed to pseudonyms for the Christians in Myanmar interviewed, for security.)

Kyaw Sone, who is part of the small Christian community in Rakhine State, has witnessed the brutality of the Tatmadaw firsthand. In 2017, the junta forcibly evicted the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine, killing thousands and forcing 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh. Since the coup, fighting between the well-funded military and an alliance of ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy forces has intensified, with the military bombing churches and destroying entire villages. The junta also cut off aid to Rakhine after Cyclone Mocha last year, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

Over and over Kyaw Sone prayed, “God, what should I do?” until he felt God touch his heart. “He has chosen me for ministry and the church,” he said. “While I am angry and I want to fight, through prayer I see God is using me for his kingdom, so I will stay and serve.”

News of the conscription law—which affects men ages 18 to 35 and women ages 18 to 27—has sent shock waves through the country. The government announced that it would draft 60,000 people a year, with the first batch of 5,000 to be called in April.

Some young people are seeking to flee the country. Others have decided to join the resistance. Still others feel paralyzed without any good options. Yet several Christians CT interviewed said they found a peace beyond all understanding that motivates them to continue their ministries, which are seeing unprecedented fruit. At the same time, Christian groups across the border in Thailand are doing what they can to help young people seeking refuge.

Desperation and fear

The conscription law reveals the desperation of the Tatmadaw, which in recent months has faced its worst military defeat since its coup sparked the current civil war three years ago. Starting in late October, ethnic armed groups have gained control of a large swath of territory in northeastern Myanmar. Resistance groups in other parts of the country have also launched their own attacks, including the Arakan Army in Rakhine State.

Since the coup, the Myanmar military has suffered from mass defections and has had difficulty recruiting soldiers. Recently, the military has reportedly resorted to kidnapping young men and forcibly enlisting them. To date, more than 4,600 people have been killed and 26,200 arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The nationwide anger against the junta explains the overwhelming distraught response to the conscription. Joel, a technical advisor for an international nonprofit that supports Burmese organizations, noted that “the intensity of emotion and fear was as if the coup had happened all over again.”

“Our team in Mandalay’s first reaction was one of, I don’t want to die at the hands of the [military] while being under their control. I’d rather die fighting for the resistance. And, if I don’t dare to do that, then I am going to go to Thailand,” he recalled.

Joel spent several years in Myanmar with his family, including during the time of the coup and the ensuing protests. After half a year of sleepless nights as soldiers raided neighborhoods, shot people in their homes, and carted civilians off to prison, his family made the difficult decision to leave. They realized their foreigner status put their team and their friends at higher risk.

After news of the conscription broke, Joel was tasked with interviewing young people across Myanmar so his organization could know how best to build capacity within the national staff and target their resources to the most-needed areas. Even though the interviewees came from different ethnic groups, religions, and professional backgrounds, the overall feeling was the same.

“I think the intended consequence of this [conscription law] is to put fear into those who are the backbone of the resistance and people giving aid,” he said. “If they flee, then their families might be targeted or at least not have enough money to survive.”

Gospel opportunities in the chaos

Lydia, director of the Waystation, a Christian nonprofit serving marginalized communities in central Myanmar, was alone in her room at night when she heard the news of the conscription.

“I was so surprised that [the conscription law] included young women as well,” said the 27-year-old. (Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun later said the government did not yet have plans to call women into military service.) “My first thought was, Where can I go? I wanted to run away and hide somewhere. I felt so afraid to sleep on my own.”

For several months before the news, Lydia had stopped letting male staff go out into the communities they served because the police and military presence was so strong there. She feared that the young men would be snatched away and enlisted.

“I quickly prayed, but the first three days felt like my whole life was broken,” she said. “I had no hope and was very fearful.”

The next day at work, she gathered her staff and felt like crying. “As the leader, I looked at all of them who are young, and I was so afraid for them,” Lydia explained.

Many of her staff began to plan to leave the country, and she wanted to go as well. But then she read Matthew 7:24–29, about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. “My foundation is Jesus, but where is my faith?” she asked herself. “The storm is coming; where is my faith? Am I building my house as a wise man or a foolish man?”

She then came upon 1 Corinthians 3:10–13, which encouraged her and even brought her joy: “Jesus is our foundation. Even though my whole life can fall, my foundation is God.”

After that, she shared these verses to strengthen others.

Lydia, who is from the Kachin ethnic group, comes from a long line of Christians. Her extended family moved to the Mandalay region long before the coup, as their home had become a war zone after decades of persecution at the hands of the Tatmadaw.

While her father initially looked for ways to keep her from conscription, her cousins seemed bold and unafraid. Her youngest cousin, who is of conscription age and whose wife just had a baby, still goes out to evangelize every day. He told her, “Lydia, God has a ministry for you here. … Everything is in God’s hands. Even though the situation is bad for God’s people, we have God’s protection.”

Lydia noted that her cousin’s strong faith helped settle her own fears. She and other members of her community now sleep on the floor of his church, as they find safety in numbers. The church has grown from a few families to 100 people since the coup. Nearly all the members are new followers of Christ.

She’s seen other gospel opportunities. One nearby village the Waystation has been trying to reach had long been averse to any Christian support or witness. Yet recently, they’ve seen a change. “The villages are open to the gospel now in a way they have not been,” she said. “I’m dreaming of what God has for us there.”

Meanwhile, Kyaw Sone said God is speaking to him through the story of Caleb. As Numbers 13 relates, when Moses sent 12 spies to Canaan, 10 of them came back fearful of the powerful people, but Caleb and Joshua believed they could conquer the land.

“Sometimes we are faced with problems in Myanmar,” Kyaw Sone said. “It is so bad and it seems impossible that we can pass [through them]. Yet Joshua and Caleb knew it was possible with God. I read this story again and again. It’s very fitting for my life right now.”

The difficulties are ever present. Kyaw Sone’s parents are still in Rakhine, which is facing a food shortage as all entrances and exits are blocked by the junta forces due to the fighting between the military and the Arakan Army. Last month, the Tatmadaw detained and arrested two flights of civilians returning to Rakhine, accusing them of coming back to join resistance forces. Many have not been heard from since their arrest. Their families fear they will be used as human shields and porters for the military.

Kyaw Sone said his parents are safe for now but sad that their children can’t return home anytime soon. Despite the hardships, his face lit up as he shared that he recently led four people to Christ in Yangon. One woman, who converted on her deathbed, has passed away, but he now has three new disciples.

Preparing for an influx

Across the Myanmar-Thai border, the Charis Project has been serving refugees and migrants from Myanmar in the border town of Mae Sot for the past 15 years. The Christian organization also supports internally displaced peoples (IDPs) on the Myanmar side of the border. Before the coup, most of the fighting had been between the Tatmadaw and ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy.

The Charis Project trains and coaches parents who have experienced deep trauma to build healthy families within the chaos and insecurity they are currently living in, said CEO Aaron Blue. The project’s long-term vision looks 30 to 40 years into the future, seeking to raise children to become wise and compassionate adults who seek peace and make a better world around them.

“Family, by God’s design, is the single most powerful resource in the development of a human,” Blue said.

Their mission has not changed since the coup or the announcement of the conscription, yet Blue believes they are in a unique position to help the influx of people fleeing into Thailand.

The conscription laws impact an estimated 12 to 17 million people, and Thailand cannot accommodate such a large number leaving Myanmar, Blue noted. Since the Charis Project has relationships with ethnic resistance organizations (EROs)—which include ethnic armed groups but also people providing aid, building political foundations, and establishing safe corridors—they can work “upstream” to stem the flow of people into Thailand by helping displaced people find safety within ERO-liberated areas of Myanmar.

“Internally, the EROs do not have the capacity or funding to deal with the amount of IDPs fleeing to the territory they control,” Blue said. “But they are people with the logistics who can get aid to where it is needed. We work to build funding and support for the IDPs; this includes food, medical supplies, [and] hygiene products.”

The Charis Project partners only with EROs that are working for peace: While ethnic armed groups share a common enemy in the Tatmadaw, they do not all agree on tactics and ethics. “There are people on the other side [in Myanmar], people with authority and influence [that] are fighting for peace and the future,” Blue said. “They are Christians seeking peace in the structure of conflict. They are serving out of a commitment to the kingdom of God and their future.”

Blue and his team watched as the conscription law brought fresh fear and desperation. But they also saw a new determination among the youth to stand up. He noted that the conscription news has yet to result in an influx of refugees entering Thailand, but they anticipate it will happen soon and are preparing aid and necessary support.

“People with power are destroying their nation, and the people [of Myanmar] just want to live,” Blue said with tears in his eyes. “They want peace, they want this to stop. They just want to go to the market without being shot. To live without their kids being kidnapped. They want to go through a year without being terrified.”

Elizabeth Francis is a pseudonym, as the writer continues to live and travel in sensitive areas.

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