Recent news from Myanmar, beset by both civil conflict and the pandemic, is heart-breaking.
According to my contacts in Yangon, COVID-19 is rife. The confirmed death toll has risen sharply to hundreds per day. Few are vaccinated. Almost a third of public hospitals are or have been closed. Relatives, friends, and aid providers risk being shot or detained as they queue to try to get oxygen cylinders to the sick under curfew.
It seemed the Southeast Asian nation was inching toward a more democratic regime. In the November 2020 election, there was yet another landslide vote for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
But the military junta, which rules Myanmar, was unable to contemplate more power-sharing. Citing election fraud, they declared a year-long state of emergency on February 1. The patience of the normally peace-loving people snapped and fury was unleashed.
Ominously the military’s 77th light infantry division, which was at the forefront of brutally repelling the Rohingya Muslims back in 2017, was deployed to deal with the protesters in Yangon, Naypyidaw, and Mandalay. First with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live rounds and even air attacks, as shown by mobile phone footage, soldiers gunned down unarmed students, teachers, and even medical workers. More than 900 civilians have been killed by security forces and over 5,000 more detained or sentenced.
In the plaintive words of one Burmese youth on the streets of Yangon: “We were just learning to fly, and now they have broken our wings.” What chance is there that the fledgling bird of Myanmar will fly again?
Falling in love with Burma
As a British teenager, I met a beautiful Burmese girl on the school bus. She and her family self-exiled in 1964, soon after Ne Win’s military coup, to start a new life in England. They arrived at Heathrow as immigrants with £100 each in their pockets. I was blown away by the affections of April and by the warm hospitality of her parents, whose home was filled with the unfamiliar aromas of eastern cooking and stories of Burma’s golden days. My fascination was fired for this far-off land.
But this misty-eyed romanticism about Burma was largely untested until April and I made an extended visit in 1995–96, along with our four teenage daughters. For April, not a lot had changed since her family’s hurried departure. For me, it was an arresting reality check.
How did this country, with such a regal past, swathed in natural beauty and populated by a people of unmistakable poise and serenity, slide into repression and obscurity? How could the upbeat memories of April’s parents be reconciled with Myanmar’s current malaise? I started to record the oral history and reminiscences of April’s Burmese family who were eyewitnesses to momentous events in mid-20th century Burma.
Then, between 2010 and 2018, April and I made seven successive visits to help teach at a small Bible college on the outskirts of Yangon, run by a couple from the Chin ethnic group. We took the opportunity to travel widely and talk to a range of young people. I began to unpeel the nation’s history, the mix of Buddhist faith and spirit worship, the warring interests of ethnic peoples (many with a strong Christin presence), the decimated education system, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the hidden human rights abuses labelled by Amnesty International as among the worst in the world.
What emerged was a far more nuanced picture of Burma (renamed to Myanmar by the military in 1997) than the media stereotype. Unexpectedly, hope dawned in the form of inspiring and energetic young millennials who were dedicated to restoring devastated lives and communities.
Drawing on this experience and research, I ask two questions. What factors have led to the current and long-standing malaise in Myanmar? And what signs of hope exist today for a radical shift in fortunes?
Five factors behind Myanmar’s malaise
Many post-colonial nations have struggled with newly won independence and their attempts to pursue democracy. The case of Burma, which gained independence from the British in 1948, is one such example. However, five factors suggest that Myanmar is a unique case.
First is the multiethnic nature of Myanmar. Within the national borders, there are at least 130 ethnic groups each with their own dialect or language, indigenous culture, and vested interests. Many, like the Karen, the Chin, the Kachin, and the Shan, have long maintained their own militias, fighting for basic human rights. The conflict between them and the dominant ethnic group, the Bamars, has continued unabated for 60 years.
A second factor is the intransigence of the junta. It is one thing to impose military dominance on a country in chaos, but the generals that rule Myanmar have shown remarkable resilience in retaining their iron grip over their peoples for six decades. Government legislation and affairs of state have been systematically passed from one small cadre of generals to another. The cards have been shuffled, but always from the same pack.
A third factor is the bullying nature of the military regime with frequent outbursts of extreme brutality. For long periods, the people of Myanmar have acquiesced. On the occasions when popular uprisings have occurred, they have been repulsed by intense ferocity—most notably student protests in 1990, the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 when monks led marches of civil unrest, and again since February this year.
A fourth factor is benign Buddhist beliefs have infused the Burmese mindset for centuries. Characteristics like tolerance, conservatism, pacifism, and profound respect for others do not readily lend themselves to armed revolt against the political status quo. It would seem that a combination of Bamar socio-ethnic superiority and Buddhist deference to one’s leaders lend multi-layered support to the continuing elitism of the generals in Myanmar.
For example, on our visit in 1995, April and I had the opportunity to have a personal meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi who had just been released from house arrest. It was evident that Buddhism was the beating heart of her hopes for her country. Her view was that non-violence is the way to end dictatorships.
A fifth factor to the junta’s durability in Myanmar is the cloak of secrecy with which they surround their political and social activities. Psychological research tells us that a heavily armed regime and extreme paranoia go hand in hand.
Three reasons for hope
The United Nations World Food Program recently stated that the crisis in Myanmar “will severely undermine the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.” The UN Development Program has warned that the impact of the pandemic and the political crisis could cause as many as 25 million people to slide into poverty by next year. The situation looks bleak; however, there are glimmers of hope.
1) The genie is out of the bottle: Social media is widely used in Myanmar. Young people in particular are media savvy—raised on Viber and Facebook—and well informed about external trends and events. Provided the authorities don’t interfere with internet access, this builds pressure from the bottom up as people get a taste for more egalitarian and democratic values. Since 2015 and the introduction of a civilian government, Myanmar has seen the growth of a new middle class, who have begun to enjoy a degree of freedom and economic opportunity unknown in the country for over half a century.
2) Millennials are returning: There is a growing contingent of millennials who are operating outside of government circles. These are alumni who have benefitted from scholarships for tertiary education and training in other countries and have returned to work in health, law, telecommunications, education, human rights, media, and community development in more rural areas of Myanmar. For example, London-based Prospect Burma has funded 1,400 such graduates over the last 30 years, with a particular emphasis on education. Many have taken up influential roles which are gradually having a societal impact, bringing a questioning mindset and critical thinking to their activities. All refer to the importance of early experiences, in many cases harrowing, and the influence of family members in forging their Christian or Buddhist values. Along with the tireless work of international NGOs like World Vision that are relieving deprivation in mainly rural areas, these are cracks of light in a dark situation.
3) Internal leadership: Individuals within Myanmar to pray for include: Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, appointed by Pope Francis and an outspoken and respected critic concerning the violation of human rights in Rakhine and Kachin states; Anna Sui Hluan, the Chin-born and Yangon-raised wife of Myanmar vice president Henry Van Thio, is a linguist, researcher, Christian preacher, and social activist writing extensively about language, human rights, and female emancipation; Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a young activist raised (significantly) in a military family, has gathered a following around a vision for a more peaceful future in Myanmar by speaking out against hate speech and intolerance.
Three priorities for prayer
As Myanmar faces the ignominy of being classified as a failed state, I would suggest three ambitious priorities for any potential leadership, whether that comes from within and/or is brokered externally. These might also direct and fuel our prayers for our Christian brothers and sisters in Myanmar.
1) Peace and a stable economy: There is an urgent, short-term need for peace-building, economic recovery, and legislative accountability. Combined with this are longer-term systemic and attitudinal shifts needed in the realms of education and emancipation. It goes without saying that a cessation of civil war is an essential prerequisite to nation-building. Backed by China and Russian military hardware, the junta’s weaponry far outweighs that of the protesters. A credible, trusted, and neutral party is required to mediate between opposing factions. The UN, while issuing economic sanctions, is unwilling or unable to fulfil this role and ASEAN shows no sign of brokering either. According to Thant Myint U, author of The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, the situation on the ground is likely to turn into a "withering stalemate" as the army seeks to take control of the streets while the civil disobedience campaign keeps much of the country ungovernable.
2) Educational uplift: Over the longer term, education is key, yet the system is in poor shape. Primary school children, especially in rural areas, lack good quality teachers, basic resources like classrooms, and often do not complete the four years of study to the age of 12. The Ministry of Education’s own Strategic Plan for 2016–21 recognizes that “most teaching still relies heavily on rote memorisation and didactic strategies that do not engage children, and therefore their learning outcomes are poor.” According to Prospect Burma, young Burmese are starting at year zero, with an urgent need for English: language, literacy, and digital skills.
Only a relatively small proportion—just over 7 percent, or about 2 million—of the population aged 25 and over has graduated from university or a higher level of education. This is skewed heavily to those in Yangon. Investment in teacher training, educational infrastructure, and learning resources is foundational to Myanmar’s future.
Tuition at tertiary and doctoral levels of study is needed to expose students to a different pedagogic style, encouraging a critical, analytic, questioning approach to learning. It will take 20 years or more for a new generation of returning millennials, trained in natural and social sciences, to bring societal shifts. As an example, according to doctoral student Phyu Pannu Khin, there are currently just four qualified clinical psychologists in Myanmar serving a population of 50 million people traumatized by decades of brutal dictatorship, with many in need of mental health services. From a deprived village background with no funds, she is supported by scholarships and aims to become the fifth.
3) Religious freedom: According to official government statistics, Buddhism is professed by 89 percent of the population, with Christians, Muslims, and animists making up the rest. Independent researchers estimate that the percentage of Christians—the long-term fruit of missionary activity in the 19th century—in Myanmar overall to be 5–8 percent, though this varies considerably across the ethnic groups. The first Karen conversion took place in 1828 and subsequently the faith spread rapidly and converts numbered about 12,000 within 25 years. Today, about 90 percent of Chin and Kachin are Christians, as are about 80 percent of Karenni and 40 percent of Karen. Most of the Naga people in Sagaing Division are also Christians.
The majority of Buddhists in Myanmar adhere to the principles of peace and compassion with the long-standing monastic tradition of education instilling these moral values in young people. However, among the Bamar people-group, who dominate the Irrawaddy basin in lower Myanmar and constitute most of the government, there has been a rise of Buddhist nationalism which has fueled a visceral hatred of Muslims in particular and Christians to a lesser extent. Even Buddhists among the ethnic minorities—the Shan, Mon, and Rakhine in particular—have suffered at the hands of Burmanization. Buddhism has been so much entwined with Bamar culture, nationality and heritage that Burmese rulers have tended to use a nationalistic strain of Buddhism for their political purposes, distorting Buddhism from a peaceful religion into a politicized creed.
Because religion and ethnicity are so intertwined, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between religious and racial hatred or, especially in the case of the military, between religiously motivated violence and the wider conflict. It is clear however, that freedom of belief, which is a foundational human right in any democratic society, is under attack in Myanmar in various ways. In a thoroughly researched and far-reaching report published in 2019 called Burma’s Identity Crisis, CSW document persistent discrimination against Christians in Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni states. Although there has been some improvement since 2011, the restriction and—in some cases—denial of human rights via legislation, hate speech, discrimination, intimidation, and violence all continue. The authors of the report list three principle drivers of religious intolerance towards Christians in Myanmar today.
Firstly, a rise in Bamar Buddhist nationalism, driven principally by certain Buddhist monks and their preaching. Secondly, the military seeking to strengthen its power by exploiting ethnic and religious identity to stoke conflict. Thirdly, civilian politicians—of various parties—do not share the Buddhist nationalist agenda but lack the political will or courage to confront it. In addition, various pieces of legislation such as the Citizenship Law (1982), the Peaceful Assembly Law (2012), and four Race and Religion Laws (2015), are used to discriminate against minorities. As the CSW report concludes: “If Burma is to have any hope of moving forward, religious intolerance must be confronted. Perpetrators of crimes against humanity must be held accountable, preachers of hate must be countered and brought to justice.”
How Christians can help from afar
Faced with atrocities on the streets of Myanmar, it’s easy to feel paralyzed and helpless from afar. But there are things we, as a Christian community, can do.
We can press for international agencies to bring to account key individuals within the military junta known to have ordered or been complicit with or perpetrated crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. We can lobby our national politicians to urge the Myanmar government to reform all discriminatory and repressive laws which restrict freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly. This is no more than endorsing basic human rights and need not be seen as a partisan attempt to undermine those in power or foreign interference to help one group of Christians.
Furthermore, we can call for consultation with civil and religious leaders in Myanmar to invest in practical initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue, harmony, and reconciliation at a grassroots level. Crucially, this would include reform of the education system and curriculum, to ensure that the nation’s young people are taught about other religions in an accurate and fair way that promotes mutual understanding.
Of course, any such actions depend on cessation of violence and constructive dialogue. In recent months, the political crisis has deepened. Now many of the indigenous leaders who previously had the potential influence to facilitate such initiatives at the government level have been forced into hiding in the Karen hills and across the Thai border. The National Unity Government, formed of politicians ousted by the military coup in February, has declared a “people’s defensive war” but the outcome remains unclear.
A more personal response is to donate to worthy causes in Myanmar. I would recommend supporting Burmese students through nonprofits such as Prospect Burma. As students courageously return to their home country, the ripples of influence will spread rapidly. Also Medical Action Myanmar is adept at getting funds to the places where it is most needed.
Finally, petitioning Father God in prayer is perhaps the most precious and influential thing we can do. Matters shift in the heavenly realms when his people pray. Bring to him your heartfelt hopes and use the information in this article to bring your specific requests for people and events in Myanmar.
Meditate on Psalm 46, which speaks of immense opposition and natural calamities yet assures us that God is even greater than these. He is faithful and sovereign over world events. Let us pray that the bird will indeed fly again.
Chris Mabey is a chartered psychologist and emeritus professor at Middlesex University Business School. His latest book, Whispers of Hope: A Family Memoir of Myanmar, was published by Penguin Random House in July.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.