Let me begin with an elegy:
Your storied history is strewn with glory and pain,
And now it bears a further painful humiliating stain.
Varied peoples have sought to make their own way
Ever threatened by those who make power their play.
Land of beautiful diversity and frustrated dreams
May God grant you mercy so that your freedom streams.
Early Monday, the military reasserted its restive power by arresting and detaining the duly elected leaders of the nascent democracy called Myanmar.
Subject to colonization, past military rule and repressive policies, this land has suffered for centuries as varied constituencies have staked their claim to its bountiful resources and strategic location.
The Burmese Army – which has retained significant power in the country even after the 2015 election when the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, prevailed – felt that its control was slipping away.
The election in November of 2020 saw the margin of those favoring the NLD agenda grow exponentially, and the military leaders, (the Tatmadaw) who were used to control, reasserted their formidable power. Suffering always accompanies these crackdowns.
Baptists have a centuries-long connection with Christian sisters and brothers there, and now many make their home here.
The Burma Diaspora is understandable as the fragility of democracy, constricted educational opportunity and genuine threat to religious liberty have driven many to find sanctuary in new lands, the US only one of those chosen.
Prominent ethnic groups such as Karen, Chin and Kachin, in particular, are flourishing in the U.S. as they enrich existing churches, plant new churches and form their own denominational structures.
Friends in Myanmar are deeply concerned, and they are requesting that the international community not let this hostile takeover go unchallenged. They want the reality of the threat of curtailing internet connection, public communication and the muzzling of these detained leaders to be known and pressure brought to bear.
Powers such as the UN, the International Court of Justice and the Human Rights Council have not, so far, been effective in helping leverage the gains of the balance of power the elections have presaged.
How might we strengthen their hands?
The US lifted sanctions in 2012, appointed an ambassador and opened business opportunities in Myanmar, all in hopes that these measures could strengthen the emerging democracy. Some have suggested that this approach was too lenient and too soon.
While it is popular to lionize Aung San Suu Kyi in the West as a Nobel Laureate, many have also been appalled at her protection of the military as they sought to decimate the Rohingya, the primarily Muslin population of the Rakhine State on the west side of the country.
Called genocide by the UN, hundreds of thousands have fled to Bangladesh, hardly a resource-rich host nation.
Admittedly, Suu Kyi’s power to change the constitution to acknowledge this ethnic group as one of the approved is non-existent, for the military retained veto power over that prospect. Perhaps she has her own Bamar (the major ethnic group) privilege.
Religious leaders in Myanmar have long chafed against the control of the government over their practice – if they were not Buddhist, which is the government-approved identity.
Waiting sometimes years to receive notice that a church or seminary might build on their property has been arduous, yet it has been hard for the government to prevent all such initiatives given the fierce independence of some of the tribal people.
As James C. Scott writes in The Art of Not Being Governed, the hill tribes have (for the most part) found a way to escape political subordination. This may be harder in the ensuing years.
My intention in this brief recap of recent events is to call persons of good faith to prayer for God’s justice, to outreach to representatives and senators, and to contact with friends in Myanmar and those who have immigrated to the US as a lifeline of encouragement.
They must not be left to face this alone. We cannot as persons who follow Jesus turn away from the cries of these treasured members of the family of God.
The travail in Myanmar is a sad echo of what occurred in the United States as the former president could not bear the lawful results of the November election.
While we usually think of a coup as something that happens in less ordered societies, it nearly happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6. It appears that the coup in Myanmar was more smoothly orchestrated than the chaos that has ensued here at home.
Our own democracy remains fragile, and we have no right to believe we have managed to perfect a way of governing superior to others. The emerging narrative in Myanmar may have, indeed, been in part fostered by the unrest our nation is enduring.
I end this brief article with a concluding elegy:
You have chosen that the story of Jesus come to this golden land
And generations have managed persecution to withstand.
Now bring justice to those who your mercy seek
That they might have freedom their witness to speak. Amen.