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A. Voices of Minority Ethnic Christians in Myanmar

Samuel N. Lynn

General Background

Myanmar is the second largest country, after Indonesia, in Southeast Asia with 262,000 sq. miles of land area and a population of 45 million (Lonely Planet website). Interestingly, Myanmar, a member of ASEAN (since July 23, 1997), is strategically located between South Asia and Southeast Asia and is geographically sandwiched between the two most populous nations in the world - China on the North and Northeast, and India on the Northwest. Other neighboring countries are Thailand on the Southeast, Laos on the East, and Bangladesh on the West.

The ethnic Christian minorities are located on all frontier or border areas. The geographical nature of the location consists of rugged hills, steep gorges and high mountains, which have made them isolated socio-culturally, economically and even politically from the rest of Myanmar. Myanmar comprises of 135 national ethnic groups with eight major national ethnic groups1: Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine and Shan. Bamar, the largest national ethnic group, constitutes 70%, Karen 9%, Shan 8%, Rakhine 5%, Mon 2.5%, Chin 2.5% and Kachin 2%.

In terms of population of religious adherents, the estimated percentage of Buddhists is 89%, Christians 6%, Islam 2.5%, Hindus 0.5%, and animists and others 2%. Among the Christian minorities, the Chin ethnic group is the largest, with 98% Christians of 473,000 Chin population on the hills in the Chin State and about 90% Christians of all Chin population of 1.5 million both in the Chin and other states. The Karen group comes second with 55% Christians of 1,431,377 Karen population; Kachin group comes third with 36.4% Christians of 1.2 million.2 Although there is an increasing percentage of Christian population among non-Burman ethic minorities such as Shan, Wah, Lahu, Lisu and Kayah, due to varied socio-political pressures, there is a decline in the number of Christians and churches especially among the Karen Christians today. Many from the predominantly Buddhist ethnic groups such as Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and the majority Karen still strongly adhere to Buddhism.

Educational Issues

Due to isolation since mid-1960s from the world community and academic inquiry, higher education in Myanmar has collapsed to below zero. Before the 1960s, Burma prided herself in having a literacy rate of more than 90% and in placing high value on youth education. Since 1988, literacy rates began to decline to 83%.3 As universities were closed from 1989 through 2000 many students (estimated at 300,000 in 2000) are waiting for acceptance. A policy of the university education management often places students of ethnic non-Buddhist groups in low priority for acceptance into government-supported universities and colleges. The government opened a "distance learning university education" but many students from poor and low-income families of the hill tribes cannot afford to commute.

Short courses, poor instruction, lack of textbooks, outdated and limited resources, all result in poor quality education. Although universities and colleges were officially reopened in 2000, many university students and teachers were deliberately dispersed in study centers, which were relocated in the suburbs with poor transportation and communication facilities. Many poor students from ethnic minority groups cannot afford accommodation in urban cities like Mandalay and Yangon. Many high school and primary school teachers spend more time giving private home tuition because they earn three times more than when they teach in school. This means that youth education in Myanmar has gradually become home-based paid education for which many poor families from ethnic minorities cannot afford.

Education at all levels is conducted by didactic, rote learning methods; students memorize teachers' outdated lectures. Tests and exams are often leaked out, not only through bribing teachers or examiners but also due to the overall ethos of dishonesty. Cheating during school exams is a widespread habit among young high school students. School teachers who do not have genuine interest in teaching have to continue teaching because they are not allowed to resign or transfer from their teaching jobs. While children of the rich and ruling class people are getting better education outside the country, students from poor ethnic minority groups are left lagging behind.

The languages of minority groups were initially allowed to be taught for five years in primary schools until the pre-socialist period in 1964. They were taught for three years during U Ne Win's socialist period. They were finally banned about the end of U Ne Win's period, a ruling that continues today. For minority ethnic Christians, the preservation and promotion of each ethnic language is an essential part of their social existence and cultural identity that any cultural manipulation or domination from outside is strongly opposed.4

Question of Life Survival: Economic Nightmares

In order to develop, Myanmar continues to need assistance, cooperation and encouragement from the international community. Presently Myanmar is trying to build with its own philosophy a new nation out of the continuing encounters of both external political disturbances and national reconciliation process. Just as 'Burmese way to Socialism' was the popular slogan during Ne Win's socialist period, so is 'Burmese way to Democracy' today.

Minority ethnic Christians, particularly of the hill tribes, have experienced a variety of economic hardships during the past decades of repression and military rule. These experiences, combined with corrupted moral and socio-political suppression, have kept people in fear. In order to survive, people have developed a coping mechanism which is daubed "corruption-adapted common way of life" and which is potentially harmful for both the individual and society. Hence, knowingly or unknowingly, almost every person gets involved in doing some things that would have been considered illegal or unethical.
No one knows the future of ethnic minorities. Fear, anxiety, ambiguity, uncertainty and distress are common experiences, coupled with continuing nationwide economic nightmares. All these have dampened peoples' moral obligation to uphold truth and justice. Cheating, bribery and gambling have become more widespread whether in social, religious, political, institutional and economic levels of society. As one common saying puts it: "Nothing is impossible if one does anything with nah-lay-hmuh (the understandable way)." Whatever one does, whether just or unjust, has to do only with the question of life survival, not with religious moral ethics. The economic nightmare of Myanmar today has often reminded minority ethnic Christians what prophet Amos said: "...selling of the righteousness for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes - they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted" (Amos 2:6-7).

Forced Porters, Child Labor, and Women

One of the criticisms of the international community against the present military regime is enforced labor, including child labor. Those forced into labor are mainly ethnic minorities living in the jungles, on rugged mountain areas, and in the frontier and border areas. The army would forcibly enlist local people from ethnic rural villages to carry their things such as food supplies, medical accessories and weapons. Forced porters and laborers are also enlisted to clear hidden mines or explosives. Many of them have lost their lives, leaving behind their desolate and homeless children, wives and relatives, and often without any compensation.

The government often blames the Karen insurrection group in the Thai_Myanmar border areas for giving military training to young children. However, the government is neither innocent, despite attempts to cooperate with various NGOs and religious organizations to safeguard child labor. These days more children from remote ethnic minority areas go to the cities to look for jobs. They work in tea/coffee shops, car washing and small convenience stores. They work daily for an estimated monthly pay of about 2000 or 3000 kyats (equivalent to U$1.50 or $2.00). In some instances they are not treated well.

In Myanmar, women are religiously and culturally subordinated to men. The government tries to lift up women's status but its attempt is only for Burmese Buddhist women. In order to improve the status of women there is a need to overhaul the mindset, structure and way of life in society. Anna May Say Pa, Principal of the Myanmar Institute of Theology, is right when she writes, "Religion and culture have so dominated the Burmese woman's life that even an educated woman will believe that she is less worthy than a man".5 According to her research, of the 37 Ministers and 42 Deputy Ministers, none is a woman. Burmese women should also be given a chance to participate in public offices and top-decision making bodies of the government, she said.

Buddhistization of Minority Ethnic Christians

Instead of respecting the plurality of 135 national ethnic groups with their distinctive languages, cultures and historical backgrounds, there is an attempt to assimilate ethnic people, including the minority ethnic Christians, into the religion, culture, and way of life of the majority. Starting at the pre-independence period, this assimilation process has often been termed "Burmanization" (to make all ethnic people Burmans and Buddhists). As this process has taken a religious-cultural form, it has also been called "assimilation into Buddhist culture" or "Buddhistization". The nationalist motto in the 1930s had been "Amyo, barthar, thatana" which meant "Burmese race, Burmese language, and Burmese religion (Buddhism)." This Burmese nationalist ideology continues to dominate the post-independence political leaders of the country - from U Nu's period, through the three-decade of Ne Win's Burmese way to Socialism, and up to the present.

According to David Brown, an observer of Burmese politics, such assimilation has taken place simply because the Burmans who led the nationalist movement and managed the state machinery have considered themselves to be the most advanced, most modern, and most nationalist community.6

Among native nationalist writers whose views explicitly supported the process of Burmanization was Po Latt who wrote:

The official view was that a unity of culture existed among the peoples of the Union and that existing differences are only expressions of the same culture at different stages of development. The Burman and Pyu peoples had long since amalgamated; the Mons had been almost absorbed, and Shan assimilation was in progress. The Karens, Kachins, and Chins were also mainly Tibeto-Burman, and all were allegedly suitable for becoming parts of a closely knit cultural organization.7

Since post-independence period, from the time of Ne Win to the present, Burmese language became not only the official common language of all ethnic groups of the Union but also the only medium of instruction for all education in Myanmar. A crucial problem for the minority ethnic Christians is not necessarily the use of Burmese as common language but the government's attempts to eliminate the long existing languages of minority ethnic Christians.

Isolation of Minority Christian Religion

Buddhism does not teach to propagate its faith by force. It is against the fundamental belief and doctrine of Theravada Buddhism to act in such a manner. Theravada Buddhism strictly prohibits monks from participating in any kind of political or commercial activities. It is also tolerant towards non-Buddhist faiths. This tolerant attitude has led to the idea of religious non-interference. Thus, Myanmar is probably one of few countries where the major religions live together harmoniously.8 This non-interference concept was behind the response of Burmese Buddhists to Ann Judson (wife of Adoniram Judson, the first Baptist missionary to Burma): "Our religion is good for us, yours for you".9

This Burmese Buddhist philosophy has not encouraged Burmese Buddhists to have dialogue with non-Buddhists, including Christians. Christians and non-Buddhists have come to co-exist peacefully but at a distance from each other, without any interaction or cooperation. There has never been a real interfaith encounter or interreligious dialogue between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Myanmar. This isolation of religions has contributed to the social alienation and misunderstanding among adherents of different religions. In fact, religious discrimination against minorities has often been accentuated by this lack of mutual understanding between the adherents of religion of the majority and adherents of the religions of the minorities. Among the restrictions that hinder Christians and other non-Buddhist minorities to fully enjoy their rights and freedom of faith are giving no permission to set up Christian Churches and institutional buildings, non-issuance of passports for Christian pastors, and limited freedom of preaching and propagation of the Christian gospel among the Burman Buddhists.

Theological Assessment and Churches' Responses

The painful journey of minority ethnic Christians in Myanmar reflects three stages of life in exile, similar to the life situation of the Israelite people in their journey to the promised land. As in the fist stage, when the Israelite people suffered from slavery in Egypt for about 400 years under Pharaoh, the minority ethnic people in Myanmar have also suffered from bitter colonial experiences under the British Indian Empire for over a hundred years. Burma was a province of the British Indian Empire until 1937 and gained independence in 1948. During this colonial period, the British colonialists and Western Christian missionaries brought about damages to the languages, cultures and religions of the minority ethnic groups. Many indigenous cultures and religions were destroyed and people were treated as objects of colonial mission expansionism. This was the first stage of our exile in our own land.

As in the second stage, when the Israelite people were exiled in Babylon where they cried for their homeland, so did the minority Christians in Myanmar suffer from internal colonization by the majority population in Myanmar. This second exile began in 1965 when the revolutionary government under Ne Win took power, expelled all Christian missionaries from the country, and nationalized all indigenous lands, properties, schools and many other things. This is the second stage of our exile in our own land.

Finally, just as the Israelite people were made to assimilate to the Canaanite culture and religions (e.g., Canaanization occurred through inter-marriage and giving Canaanite names to Israelite children) so were the indigenous Christians in Myanmar made to assimilate to the Burman Buddhist religion and culture. This process has been and still is characterized as Burmanization or Buddhistization. The government does not only try to eliminate indigenous languages and Christianity but it also wants to make all indigenous people Burmans and all Christians Buddhists. This is the third stage of our exile in our own land.

What could the minority ethnic Christians do today? Would God send a Messiah to liberate the indigenous people in Myanmar? The answer lies with the indigenous people themselves. But there are many political and social restrictions for indigenous people in their journey to full-fledged freedom of life. Is something wrong with the minority ethnic Christians especially in their relation to the majority Buddhists either in terms of historical contact or inter-faith dialogue?

The almost two-hundred-year-old Christian presence in Myanmar has been and still is seen as a potted plant that has not yet been completely transplanted into the Buddhist soil of the country. There is a Christian reluctance or inability to dialogue with Buddhism and other traditional faiths of the people. The Christian presence is evident among ethnic minorities such as Kachins, Chins, Lahus and Was. It is estimated at less than 1% among the Bamars, Rakhines, Mons and Shans. Christianity in Myanmar was and still is viewed merely as a religion of ethnic minority groups that embody western political and religious-cultural ideals. To a Burman Buddhist's understanding, there is no difference between being a Western and being a Christian. So the presence of a Christian in Myanmar is not only seen as a spiritual but also as a political threat. Such a misunderstanding must be removed and the Christian message of love, forgiveness, peace, justice and reconciliation be highlighted.10

For a fruitful witness and effective Christian mission, it is imperative for Myanmar Christians to seriously take more tolerant and humble steps in their approach to the faiths of their neighbors, hence, the need for interreligious dialogue and study of the majority Buddhist religion. In response to this need, the Myanmar Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Myanmar, and the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC) have launched various programs and activities related to Christian-Buddhist dialogue. This dialogue includes not only inter-religious dialogue but also political dialogue - e.g. reconciliation processes through Shalom Christian Foundation at a higher level. MCC implemented since the 1990s various dialogue programs and activities at both national and regional levels to facilitate Christian-Buddhist interaction and promote interreligious contact, fellowship, and reconciliation. Christian endeavors include such activities as Christmas dinner party with government officials, dignitaries, Buddhist monks, and ecumenical seminars and workshops on dialogue and Buddhist meditation at national and regional levels. Under the leadership of the Association of Theological Education in Myanmar (ATEM), seminaries and Bible schools have been asked to teach a compulsory subject on Christian-Buddhist Dialogue. The Myanmar Institute of Theology took the initiative in this area since 1998.

Finally, the aforementioned minority ethnic issues with particular reference to the Christian minority groups have paved the way for a new way of theological thinking and reflection in Myanmar. The tragic experiences have made them reconsider the value of life and to renew their theological concepts. What makes theological thinking in Myanmar unique has to do particularly with 'the peculiarity of its context. Myanmar theological context is unique in terms of the people's suffering from the hard realities of life. Doing theology for Christian minorities in Myanmar does not only deal with liberation from economic poverty but more basically with empowering the ethnic Christian minorities to courageously confront the hard realities of life.

In other words, theology of ethnic Christian minorities must be able to boldly address current social, economic, political, religious and cultural structures and systems affecting the life situation in Myanmar. To develop such a theology of self-empowerment, minority ethnic Christians must continue to engage in constructive struggle to uproot oppressive structures of society that have brought about extreme poverty, moral decadence, and varied abuses of human rights.

1 cf. The New Light of Myanmar, February 12, 1993; Political Situation of Myanmar and Its Role in the Region, 2000, p. 5.

2 cf. Myanmar Facts & Features, 2002.

3 World Almanac, 2002.

4 cf. John F Cady, A History of Modern Burma, 1958.

5  cf. Birthing an Asian Feminist Theology in the Face of the Dragon: A Burmese Perspective, in RAYs MIT Journal of Theology, vol. 3 (2002), p.19-21.

6 cf. David Brown, The State and Ethnic Politics in South-East Asia, 1994, p. 48.

7 "Union Culture: Its Sources and Contacts," Burma, vol. III, October 1952.

8 cf. Political Situation of Myanmar and Its Role in the Region, p. 73.

9 James D. Knowles, Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson: Late Missionary to Burmah, 1831, p. 137.

10 cf. Samuel Ngun Ling, "In the Midst of the Stupas: Revitalizing the Christian Presence in Myanmar," in MIT RAYS Journal of Theology, vol. 3, 2002, p.113-5.



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