Christianity in Myanmar (Burma)
By Lunminthang Haokip
Introduction: Myanmar or Burma is known across the globe as a military-ruled third world country that is not favourable to Christianity. It is true that construction of new church buildings were discouraged in the past. As of now, the dynamics of ensuing ‘democratic’ elections somehow calculatingly has relaxed the Junta’s strictures on that issue.
To put it succinctly, Christians in Myanmar, despite the internal vigils, enjoy more liberty to preach and spread the Gospel Truth than their counterparts do in some of the ‘democratic’ countries. The message that Adoniram and Anne Judson, the pioneer American Baptist missionary couple to Burma, drove home in Rangoon and its suburbs from 1813 through 1820s and 30s of the last century, under strict monitoring of the then local authorities, is still gaining momentum in the ‘golden land’.
The Percentage Divide:
Out of the approximately 53 million people of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, viz, the Burmans, Kayins, Chins (Zomis,
(L to R) Upa Ngam Pao, Rev. Khup Thang & Rev. Let Tin Thang of KVTBA, Tamu
Thadou-Kukis, Mizos etc.), Kayahs, Mons, Rakhines and Shans which constitute the 135 ethnic entities permanently settling in the Divisions and States of the country, about 89% are Budhists, 4% Christians (some claim 6%), 4% Muslims, and 3% Hindus.
Out of the 4% Christians, 3% of the total population of the Union are said to be Baptist. The top language groups are Burmese, Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhine, Mon, Chin and kachin. A total of 111 languages are recognised by the government. Of the major languages spoken in the hermit nation, 68% speak Burman, 9% speak Karen, 4% Rakhine, 3% Chin, 2% Indian and 5% speak other languages and dialects. The total area of Myanmar, 676, 577 square kilometres, is divided into 7 Divisions, Irrawady, Magwe, Mandalay, Pagu, sagaing, Tenasserim and Rangoon; and 7 States, Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, and Shan.
The Background: For reasons best known to the majority populace, Buddhism, by far is the “favoured” religion in the land of Pagodas. The peaceful middle path conceived and made popular by Buddha from Indian soil had been deeply entrenched in the Burmese psyche. Buddhism is a way of life out there and enjoys official patronage. Christianity still carries the image of the colonial rulers who invaded Burma three times in 1825, 1852, and 1885.
The country came under the direct administration of British India from 1885 to 1937. Of course, God had a master plan in the invasions. Adoniram Judson, the American pioneer Evangelist who translated the New Testament Bible in Burmese and published in 1823, and the whole Bible in Burmese in 1834, was mercilessly jailed by the king of Ava. The raid of 1925 got the imprisoned Judson released from the shackles of judicial custody. The freedom of movement granted to him helped the faithful servant of God get liberated to pursue translation and printing of the complete Bible in Burmese.
The Big Umbrella:
Burma Christian Council was the old fold founded in 1949. Christian leaders of the third world country resolved to come under the new name they gave themselves in 1989 – Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC)
Dr. Yam Kho Pau, AGS, MCC
which is headquartered in Yangon. The apex council was the offshoot of National Council of India, Burma and Ceylon that was founded in 1914 in India.
The common belief in the Triune God –the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – as testified by the Holy Scripture, held the Christian groups in Myanmar together. MCC also has unflinching faith in the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed and strongly believes that the Bible gives the way to salvation of all mankind. There are about 30 regional and local councils of Churches in the country.
The Alien Stigma: For all the painful labours of the western missionaries from the 16th century to the present one in Burma, the growth of Christianity has not been proportionate to the desired effect. It took 6 years of prayers and relentless effort for the Judsons to convert the first Karen brother, Ko Tha Byu, and made him the pioneer Evangelist in his resistant community.
The monarch of the region himself was hostile to conversion, even then. The successive wars waged by the British Indian rulers on Burma were the major setback for advancement of the Gospel among ethnic Burmans. When the colonial country was freed from the clutches of the British rulers on 4 January, 1948, Christianity was left behind to strive for progress under the indelible impact of the stigmatised image of imperialism.
The prejudiced notion sticks in the minds of people who matter politically in Myanmar, even today. Nothing lesser than the wetting of the pew and the pulpit with tears of revealed prayer, and heart-searing testimonies, will be required to prove the living God in the land.
The Chin Hills Factor:
Flanked by Mizoram in the west and Sagaing and Magwe Divisions in the east; bordering Rakhine state in the south,
Matupi Town, Chin State
Manipur in the north and Bangladesh in the south-west, and measuring 36,019 square kilometres in geographical expanse, Chin Hills in Myanmar, which was granted the status of statehood on 4 January, 1974, has two districts: North and South. The majority of the inhabitants are Chins numbering about 5 lakhs in population.
Thanks to the Baptist missionary work rendered with a consummate finish by Arthur Carson from 1899, and continued with renewed vigour after his death in 1908 by his even more jealous help meet, Ann Carson, Church-spires sprout chock-a-block in the towns of Chin state today. Most of the native residents like, Falams, Hakhas, Thantlangs, Thadou-Kukis, Zous, Maras, Matus, Senthangs, Dais etc. affiliate their churches to either Zomi Baptist convention (ZBC) or Chin Baptist Church, Myanmar. The Mizos of Myanmar are under the fold of Methodist Church of Upper Myanmar, Presbyterian Church of Myanmar and Salvation Army, Myanmar Command.
ZBC: In Chin Hills and Upper Myanmar Zomi/Thadou-kuki-Hakha-Falam-inhabited settlements, Zomi Baptist Convention rules the roost like CBCNEI in NE India. The nomenclature was given by Rev. ST Haugo, a Suhte Missionary in 1953. ZBC has 53 recognised Christian tribes anchored firmly to its organisation. The convention has its headquarters at Falam and trains future workers in the Lord’s vineyard in Zomi Theological College, Yangon. Although Chin State exists as a recognised province, the Hill people of Northeast India’s immediate neighbour country felt that the word “Chin” was a name given by other ethnic groups, and that it does not address the origin of their common ancestry.
The more widely acceptable nomenclature was Zo or Zomi. ZBC has been lapped up as a convention by the Chin Christians of western and upper Myanmar. Nevertheless, there is a debatable controversy over unanimity on the credibility of “Zo” as the progenitor of the over 2 million Chin-
Mindat Town, Chin State
Kuki-Mizo sub-nation whose cultural affinity had been damaged extensively by the accidents of history.
The Yangon Scenario: Nay Pyi Daw is the declared official capital of the Union of Myanmar. But Rangoon, rechristened Yangon, still continues to hold sway as the practical capital of the Burman-dominated country. The Korean Missionaries had attempted great things for the Lord in Myanmar. They formed business teams in disguise, got themselves registered officially, and paid the pre-requisite taxes of the land with the sole view to witness the Lord Jesus in the land of Pagodas with Yangon as the axis point.
After a certain degree of initial success in making inroads into the ethnic communities in the land as Gospel-businessmen, as their motives become more visible and audible to the powers-that-be, the Gospel do-gooders were subjected to serious scrutiny. Sooner or later, their trade licences were cancelled and they were ordered to pack up and march out of the country for their homes. It is a challenge of a trend set by the adventurous South Koreans. Nearer home, in Northwest Myanmar and Northeast India, we must pray much and seek divine guidance to impart the Gospel of love to our brothers in the international neighbourhood.
Leveraging the Average Bible Student: We know that many revered non-resident Bible scholars of Myanmar-origin are either ministering or undergoing courses in several Christian countries across the continents. Agreed that the dollar or other foreign currencies they earn abroad come handy as the means to live a lifestyle they could not have bargained for in the place of native domicile. The big-hearted altruism of the first-world nations in extending support to the struggling aspirants of the third, of course, deserves a standing applause.
That most of the NRMs (non-resident Myanmarese} had invested back in their home towns or in the bigger cities of their country also boost up the overall economy of the locals. The exposure to the West has its own side-effects, though. In the mad rush to catch up with the teasing ways of the world, the mind of Christ, the Saviour (Phil 2:5) who hailed from the Middle East, seems to be buried under the zeal to learn English and become a green-card holder.
Time to Witness: The question is, how far had the servants of God served the Lord they professed to follow in their own region? Has the lure of comfort soft-pedalled the Gospel-zeal to “preach and teach” the nations? Will the souls of the Judsons and Carsons be happy over the state of Christian affairs in the ethnic concentrations where they sowed the seed of the Gospel Truth, in tears? I, as a concerned social observer from close quarters, feel that the present rulers in authority in Nay Pyi Daw are not so much averse to the believers among their subject as they had been made out to be.
Their priority is more of Internal Security of the country and holding on to their systematic comfort zone. Providing relief in times of calamity by Christian NGOs is fine and well-appreciated. But more than that, all professors of the Faith should call, with passionate penitence, on the “Most High who rules over the affairs of men” (Daniel 5:21) to intervene and move hearts that matter to give weighty credence to Civil Liberties. Anyway, compared to the first century persecution, what believers face in India and Myanmar are chicken feed. Let us feed the spiritual chicken, now when we can.
Appeal for Verdict: As a thinking pen-pusher, I feel sad that I have to think many times before telling others as to who I am or what my ethnic identity is. I was moulded to be a trifle too sensitive a man to ignore the sensibilities and mental inclinations of my brothers and sisters who speak almost similar dialects in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Many sub-national names had been floated around with each proponent sticking to his guns, come what may.
However, earthly approaches to unite our scattered and fragmented folks, with an ace up one’s sleeve, will boomerang at the end of the day, doing further disservice to the goal of unification. The partition of minds, widened further by international vested interests in our plural societies, cannot be bridged with regional and sectarian propositions. We need to forget the past and forgive the wrong-doers, real or imagined, confer and confabulate objectively to bring out a viable nomenclature, irrespective of past proposals, like they do in zero-based budgeting.
The Only Remedy: A hundred ideas may be bouncing about. Debates may go on eternally. But the solution to the vexed issue of giving ourselves a common sub-national name lies in the hands of the God who not only created Chin Hills, Lushai Hills, Manipur, Assam, Sagaing Division etc. but also sustained the people, caused and controlled calamities and gave His Word to sensitize His children. More than political clamours, the old writing in 2 Chronicles 7:14 will bring blessing to our trans-national fold, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Let us take note of the pre-conditions we must fulfil to be worthy of being heard and healed by the Almighty. Reproduced below is this author’s poetic appeal to reverse our priorities in tune with the will of God:
Lunminthang Haokip, Moreh ADC
C4Z: CHRIST FOR ZOUGAM
1. Where there’s no vision, people perish,
Where there’s no will-of-God, widows increase;
My own folks, you love one another,
Says our good Lord and God the father;
Love of land, tribe and self is greater,
Among the nations, we are smaller.
In a bid to build church of own choice,
Coz each wants to lead own fold’s sad voice;
Church-folks who once sang in one accord,
Are now split followers of one Lord;
That we may regain spiritual strength,
The binding ZCFI, let’s all make ours.
2. We may be parted by land borders,
Maybe we’re bound by rules and orders;
But, like the trees, our roots of origin
And branches, in Christ are enjoined;
That the poor and deprived may get well,
Let’s put to use might of the Gospel.
3. To be stewards, on earth we were kept,
To be honoured in God, we were left;
But we swap His will with vain passions,
We’re below our due among nations,
Wake up, let’s cease to for Christ seize land,
Let Christ for Zougam be the peace-chant.
The writer is additional deputy commissioner (ADC) under Manipur government, India.