Myanmar’s Christians Cautiously Hopeful

November 19, 2015 by Janelle P in Asia

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s first freely-contested election in 25 years, winning the needed two-thirds of the vote enabling it to nominate the country’s new President. Though she herself is barred from that role because she has foreign family members, Suu Kyi has made it clear that she will be heavily involved in running the government, saying that she will be the “de facto” President. She will have to negotiate very carefully with the military, however, which holds 25% of the seats in Parliament.

Her new government, likely to be announced in February, will inherit many pressing issues—not only working with the nation’s minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims, but also with ethnic groups that are majority Christian, including the Kachin and Chin, and some that have a sizeable Christian population, such as the Karen.

The current military government has had a continued campaign of oppression against ethnic minorities. Operation World calls Myanmar, “a deeply fractured nation on a political and especially ethnic level.” The conflict zones span thousands of miles along the country’s borders. Some of the world’s longest-running civil wars rage on in this nation. These tumultuous borderlands are where the majority of Burma’s Christians live.

“The 2008 Constitution indirectly mentions that Buddhism is the state religion,” explained Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson, General Secretary of Kachin Baptist Convention. “The majority of Christians in Myanmar are from ethnic minorities. The ethnic [minorities] in Myanmar live along the country’s borders. We need permission for church buildings in those areas. And we also need special permission for any celebration. If I preach openly in a market or in other areas [outside of the church], they can arrest me, because we are allowed to preach [only] on Sundays [and inside churches].”

There is a powerful new Buddhist organization in Myanmar—the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, locally known as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ and led by influential Buddhist monks supportive of the ruling party. “I heard,” said Rev. Dr. Naing Thang, Director of the Religious Liberty Commission and President of the Reformation Theological Seminary, “that the [Ma Ba Tha] said the ‘double C virus’ is very dangerous for them, and they will try to suppress it. One ‘C’ for their Chin ethnicity, and one ‘C’ for their Christian faith.”

Given the elections results, many wonder if there is reason for Christians to be hopeful. “I met her [Suu Kyi] in 2012 in Myitkyina, and I asked her a question: ‘What is your position on the ethnic conflict issue?’” Samson recalled. “And she said it is too early for her to respond. We had at that time about 100,000 IDPs [internally displaced people]. We wanted her to visit IDPs and say some encouraging words. But she didn’t visit IDP camps. So this kind of an answer and her action doesn’t make us very happy. Ethnic minorities may have the same situation as before. We believe that the international community will push our government to focus on the ethnic issue.”

World Watch Monitor also heard from Daniel Ottenberg, analyst at the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, who explained that, “While the very fact that the elections were held undisturbed is encouraging, there are several important caveats to keep in mind which affect religious minorities, including Christians. Firstly, the military still holds 25% of parliamentary seats reserved for it. This means the army will remain the decisive factor determining which political direction the country will steer. Secondly, the clashes with ethnic minorities… continue unabated, and a solution is still far from visible. Thirdly, the army will still occupy the most influential posts such as Ministry of the Interior, Defense and Border Affairs.”

“Several hundred thousand ethnic minority votes,” Ottenberg continued, “were excluded from the election process right from the start: the Muslim minority’s citizens’ rights (and hence registration as voters) were denied, and in the case of Christian minorities complete village tracts were excluded from voting due to security issues. Finally, it remains to be seen how the increasingly radical Buddhist groups like the Ma Ba Tha will react. Therefore, it’s too early to draw conclusions about the full outcome of these elections. While the beginning can be considered encouraging, observers will need to wait patiently, so that—as one observer recently put it—when international media moves on to new stories, Myanmar is not left to sink into oblivion again.”

Source: World Watch Monitor

Father, in a world turned upside-down, You are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. No matter who rules a nation, You are sovereign over all kings and princes. We pray today for Christians and other minorities in Myanmar in this time of waiting to see what changes the new regime in their nation will bring. We pray that Your Holy Spirit will encompass them about in safety and encourage their souls. Lift their eyes to see beyond the instability of their government to the Savior of their souls, the One who rules justly. We pray that You will overrule in this land, granting freedom of religion to all who live there. And, regardless of the nation’s decrees, we pray that Your gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ will go forth in great power and authority in the country of Myanmar. In the Name of Jesus, who “rules the peoples with equity and guides the nations of the earth” (Ps. 67), Amen.

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