Once upon a time, Burma was a land of romantic mystique. Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century poem “Mandalay” conveys that vision,
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me…
Sadly, Kipling’s reverie is light-years removed from today’s bitterly divided and dangerous Burma—also known as Myanmar. In an ever-worsening conflict that has recently seized the country, the Burmese Army is shooting protestors with live ammunition, innocent families are bombed by government aircraft, and more than a million refugees have fled abuses of unimaginable brutality.
Since February 1, 2021, Burma has been featured in near-daily international news reports decrying a violent military junta’s coup, which overthrew the government of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD). From that day until now, bloodshed has increasingly spread across the country.
Today’s Burma is a perilous war zone in which terrified ethnic and religious minorities are facing life-or-death dangers, and chaos reigns supreme. But even before the February 1 coup, Burma was a land of many dangers, and freedom of religion was virtually non-existent.
Although most westerners imagine that a Buddhist nation like Burma/Myanmar would be peaceful and gracious, the country’s military has long been ruthless. Christians, who live as an at-risk minority in several Burmese states, have faced ongoing mistreatment at the hand of a notoriously brutal army for decades. And Christians aren’t alone in their suffering. Rohingya Muslims have also experienced unimaginable cruelties.
These abuses have not gone unnoticed. In 2019, the U.S. government imposed punitive actions for the Burmese government’s human rights and religious freedom violations, including travel bans against military leaders for “gross human rights violations.” In December, the U.S. Department of State redesignated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC). In fact, since 1999 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar a CPC in its annual reports. This has been due to violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. The regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse as its array of weaponry.
Rohingya Muslims have been particularly targeted since 2016. That October, more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. Those insurgents attacked again in 2017. The Rohingya had been stateless for decades, but due to these acts of violence against the Burmese government, they immediately found themselves facing deadly retribution. More than a million have since fled.
In recent days, the Rohingya’s ongoing tragedy was horrifically amplified thanks to a fire in the refugee camp in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands had taken shelter. On March 23, the New York Times reported that local authorities “searched for survivors…”
amid the smoldering ruins of a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp, one day after a fire killed at least 15 people, injured hundreds and left tens of thousands homeless once again. The carnage at the camp in Cox’s Bazaar, near the border with Myanmar, was the latest tragedy for residents, who have lived for years in its squalid shanties since fleeing their homes in Myanmar in the aftermath of a military-perpetrated massacre.
While that tragedy unfolded, the beleaguered Christians in Myanmar continue to face greater risks than ever. World Magazine reports,
In the ethnic Karen region in eastern Myanmar, villagers in Day Pu Noh Valley in Papun District noticed a military fighter jet flying overhead in the afternoon. That night, the military dropped bombs on the village—the first airstrikes in the region in 20 years—killing three people and wounding eight.
“The gloves are off now,” Free Burma Ranger’s Dave Eubank said of the military’s escalation. “There’s no need to have a façade of democracy anymore, [the military] felt the cease-fires were not working in controlling the ethnic groups, so now they are doing what they were going to do all along.”
Dangers for Christians abound as protestors across the country rise up in defiance against the regime. And some believers remain terrified by the upheaval. Open Doors quoted one Christian: “I couldn’t sleep and I cried out to God more than three times that night. Our dreams, hopes, vision and freedom are taken away. Our lifetime has been full of grief, fear and trouble under the military regime. People are suffering because of the war. Job opportunities are also difficult now, and we are depressed by the military coup because we had hoped for a ceasefire.”
However, Christianity Today offered a different perspective. An evangelical leader described the civil disobedience in which some Christians are participating: “On the ground, our brothers and sisters [believers] will continue their movement…the drumming of pots and pans, peaceful mass marching demonstrations, and the chants of condemnation to the military. Abroad, we will let the world know that we are fighting back.” He went on to say, “Christians in Myanmar are not timid…Christians might fight with [their] greatest weapon, prayer and Jesus himself.”
This leader then offered a plea—one with which we can all respond with urgency. He said, “We also request all of you who sympathize [with] us, pray for us in this fight to overcome sin and Satan’s schemes.”
Yes. Let’s remember to pray that our Lord will extend mercy to the Rohingya and to all others who suffer under the iron fist of Burma’s military regime. And may He provide increased blessings, encouragement, and safety to Burma’s beleaguered Christians.