If any Christians can be known for following Jesus’ word on being “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves” it is Christians in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Surviving 50 years of brutal military dictatorship, they are alive and well. I asked how they emerged intact, without elongated stories of suffering and rationale for weakness. A pastor smiled: “Dr. Brian, we didn’t put signs on our buildings. When we wanted to build a church, we just built a house and made it larger. We kept our heads down.”
A little history matters in understanding the Myanmar church today.
After a century of British, colonial rule in 1948 (then called) Burma, was given independence. Some saw it doomed from the start, given independence occurred on the wrong day, according to astrological readers. Astrology here is core to what’s done and when it is done. In contrast to Thailand where appeasing spirits rule daily life, in Myanmar, reading the astrological signs matters so much that all kinds of governmental and business decisions will only be made when the Buddhist priest in reading the astrological signs, gives his ok. Even in building bridges!
Between British colonial rule and independence there was a hiatus when the Japanese ruled, a time of a rising of tribal enmities as non-Burmanese ethnic nationalities such as the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Rohingyas sided with the British. Some were not Buddhists and so when they supported the British they were seen as traitors to the nation and its religion, especially the Karen tribe. For years they were targets of persecution by the government, until 2012 when a treaty was signed. Only time will unfold the honor and integrity of this treaty.
Six months before Burma was given independence from the British (1948), General Aung San –who led the struggle against the British — was murdered. (Note, he was father of today’s political and human rights hero Aung San Su Kyi.) After an interlude of communist control along with complex sets of opposition forces, in 1962 a military coup ruled until 2011. It was only then that the military government declared its move to democratization.
For the last half a century successive military regimes — seen by some as one of the most repressive in the world — ruled. Accused time and again of crimes against humanity, torture was common, including forced labor and conscription of child soldiers.
Much like the fall of many dictatorships across North Africa and through the Middle East, the Myanmar military majors were pressured by the world community. Driven by the incredibly courageous defiance of one of its daughters, Aung San Suu Kyi (now a Nobel Peace Laureate) they finally announced that democracy would become the ruling system.
Two years later, what has changed? Some changes are cosmetic. The new constitution requires 40% of elected members be military; 40% be former military and only 20% civilian. Yet surprising many, some former military aren’t voting according to what their military masters want. As well, Suu Kyi in parliament provides a constant reminder of their promise to democratize. I was told that in the past when the Buddhist community wanted a temple built or some government action, they got what they wanted. Today all budgets must come before the house and be approved, including the military’s.
And how is the church in Myanmar fairing? Here are a few observations.
* Their ability to keep a low profile may seem to some a kowtowing to the military. Historians will give us a broader picture, but my sense is that their focus on living out the Gospel in ways that didn’t draw attention from the military was wise, allowing them space in which churches and missions could, if not flourish, at least survive.
* Their church map tends to be rural, dotted with many small Bible colleges, everyone in need of their own school, reminiscent of other countries freed from military rule and dictatorships: as freedom becomes the new norm, cooperating becomes a newly acquired skill among leaders.
* Leadership here is young: the newly elected general secretary of the Myanmar Evangelical Christian Fellowship (MECF), is the Rev. Dr. Morris Liana. (Lily and I celebrated with him and his wife their 25th wedding anniversary.) Well educated and experienced (president of the Union Evangelical Seminary and former National Secretary of the Wesleyan Church of Myanmar) he is recognized among his peers. Emerging with this new phase of freedoms under the new political mandate, able and energetic leadership means everything.
* The Gospel faces different challenges in this Buddhist country from others. In contrast to (what I noted in my earlier Dispatch) Thailand, here Buddhism is more traditional than pervasive. In Thailand, spirit houses are everywhere: in front of hotels, restaurants, homes, places of business Amulets hang from mirrors in taxis, sold everywhere in the open markets, and for what reason? To deal with the spirits. Thais live in constant fear of the spirits, believing they must be addressed so as to be appeased. In Myanmar, while temples are everywhere, and used by citizens in their religious life, their religion is more cultural than personal, more traditional than operational. As well there is a curious pattern of addressing spirituality. Education dominates life to age 30 with the next twenty years focused on vocation and money. Only at age fifty are spiritual matters taken seriously. This makes evangelism for young people strategic.
* The language of Buddhism is Bali Sanskrit, a rather distant language unknown by most citizens. While it is memorized, it is not understood, so for young people their religion becomes even more detached.
This country known by the film, “Bridge over River Kwai”, is in a new moment of cultural transition. However its recent declaration of democratization should fool no one. The front page picture of Aung San Suu Kyi sitting alongside military generals viewing soldiers and army tanks rolling by may indicate a policy of accommodation in planning for the presidential election of 2015 more than symbolizing a different heart of the military. With an army of 400,000 troops, there remain 140,000 war refugees in Thailand and an unresolved request for a commission of inquiry into possible war crimes.
The church — and here I know primarily the Evangelical (Protestant) — has learned to hold its opinion, keep low its profile and understate its place and role. Its future will require the same diligence, humility and ability to be circumspect in witness and life. A great people, who have known indescribable hardship, live with a government which has been cruel. Yet here is a people with a heart for a loving and life-changing Gospel.
Lily and I left this land with great hope for its future and great trust in its leadership.
If you have opportunity to pray and support work in Myanmar, consider it a privilege and honor. And may generosity mark your giving.
Brian C. Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance
Dr. Brian Stiller with his wife, Lily.