The military coup in Myanmar on 1 February, leading to widespread protests and anger across the nation, is bringing back awful memories for many familiar with life under the sceptre of military rule between 1962 and 2011. Brother Lwin is an Open Doors partner who has served the church in Myanmar for decades. Here, he sheds light on those dark days and why a return to military rule spells fear for Christians. All names in this article, including Brother Lwin’s, have been changed to protect identities.
Believers in Myanmar gather to pray into the country's crisis
“The military junta was a power that the people cannot even grapple with,” shares Brother Lwin. (‘Junta’ means a military or political group that rules after taking power by force.) “Life was difficult on all levels, especially between 1962 and 2011. In those days, the military could go into a church anytime and ask the men to come and carry their load. They [the believers] would be forced labourers. The military could do anything they wanted.”
“I was forced to be a porter six times during the junta,” shares Peter, another Open Doors local partner. “In 1998, whilst attending church, the soldiers came and pulled us [him and his father] out of the church against our will, and they made us carry loads for 34 miles. They kicked us, did not give us food, and were not hesitant to shoot if any of us porters fled. They made us carry rocket launcher heads.”
Both Brother Lwin and Peter come from Myanmar’s Chin tribe – Myanmar’s persecuted Christian tribal minority. They grew up with fighting all around them and have seen and experienced the tyranny of the military.
"I still feel nervous even when I talk about it. It’s such a painful memory" 'Brother Lwin'
Brother Lwin recollects stories of believers being fined for absurd reasons. “I remember in the early years, there was a particular village where a believer’s house caught fire for some reason, and instead of [the military] helping them, they were fined. The local authorities said, ‘Because your house caught fire and it caused so much trouble to the village, to everyone, you have to pay a penalty.’”
The abuse didn’t stop there. “When they were building a railway track, they required the public to work without pay – they had to bring their own food and even contribute to the materials for construction.” If young people were unavailable, older people were forced to do the backbreaking work. “It was like the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt.”
“It's really horrible,” Brother Lwin says. “I still feel nervous even when I talk about it. It’s such a painful memory."
“The church was also very restricted,” he adds. “Churches could not secure a permit even to repaint the church or repair the building. House churches were often shut down or chased out by landlords the moment they were found out to be Christian.”
Aside from the horrendous history between Chin Christians and the military, another layer that gives the church anxiety is the military enabling and supporting Buddhist Nationalism.
Myanmar’s military is closely allied with hardliner Buddhist groups such as the Ma Ba Tha, the outspoken, monk-led association responsible for the persecution of not only Christians but the Muslim Rohingya minority. There is no formal tie between the two, but the military junta party did court the support of Buddhist nationalist groups during the recent election.
"Church members are treated as treasonous" Brother Lwin
“There's a very strong Buddhist nationalism [movement in Myanmar],” says Brother Lwin. “The military is very much a part of that. They are there to protect Buddhism in every area.” From the believer’s perspective, this amounts to a consolidation of power. “They are one,” he says. “The military is carrying out whatever is being told of them to do, which is basically protecting the Buddhist cultural identity.”
In this context, Christians are viewed with hostility. “The church in Myanmar is thought to be ‘followers of the white people,’ and church members are treated as treasonous.”
“When I recall those memories, they are still fresh,” shares Peter. “When I see the soldiers in uniform, I am still afraid. When the military announced the coup this year, I was angry. I did not eat food, but spent time in prayer. I prayed to God to change the hearts of the military rulers.”
Brother Lwin says many Christians are at a loss. “Many are afraid to even talk about the current situation. Many are also interceding for their country. Pastors have called their church members to prayer. Some Christians have strong political views and leanings. Some feel for Aung San Suu Kyi, primarily on humanitarian grounds that she is getting older and is in detention again.”
Since the coup, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests. Brother Lwin says that there is no call to protest from church leaders – any decision to protest is a believer’s personal decision – but there have been calls for prayer from the major denominations and local pastors.
Since the military acceded to partial democratic governance in 2011, Open Doors has been conducting persecution survival training all over Myanmar.
“The training changed my life and my view on the military,” shares Peter. “Before, I was so angry and wanted to fight the military. I tried to join an insurgency group. After I attended the persecution survival training, it changed my life and my view of the military. Now I pray for them.”
"I never prayed for the military government because they persecuted us, but we realise that it is our duty to pray for them" Burmese believer
“We have second and third generation trainers who were initially trained by foreign trainers,” Brother Lwin adds. “Now, these local trainers have taken the training as far as the remote tribal areas in the north, and into the Buddhist enclaves of the country.”
Two training sessions have been held since the coup took place. “Those attending are praying instead of wanting to protest,” said one of the trainers to Brother Lwin. “They are calling their people to the church to hold a prayer meeting instead of going to the streets.”
One person from the training shared, “I never prayed for the military government because they persecuted us, but we realise that it is our duty to pray for them.”
“We are at peace that even if the country closes down again, our people are equipped to face persecution and will respond to it biblically,” one church leader, Pastor Masing, shares. “Even now, people are not reacting emotionally. Instead, they are responding prayerfully. This was unheard of ten years ago when there was so much hatred towards the military junta.”
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