(Religion Unplugged) — Since Myanmar’s latest military coup in February 2021, ethnic Chin, Kachin and Karen Christians in the U.S. have advocated for democracy in their home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Last week those efforts paid off, with the historic passage of the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2022 (BURMA) Act, an American Congressional act that will authorize sanctions against senior officials in Myanmar’s military and state-owned commercial enterprises, support democracy efforts and provide humanitarian relief.
The military takeover is approaching its second year and has resulted in 1.1 million internally displaced people according to the United Nations. Statistics on how many civilians have been killed vary, but the number could be as high as 7,000 civilian deaths according to the Institute for Strategy and Policy, Myanmar. While many reports have focused on the systematic killings of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, reports indicate the military government’s widespread torture and abuse of democracy supporters, journalists, civilians and other religious minorities, including Christians.
While the U.S. had continued to place sanctions on a variety of military-linked individuals and entities, the U.S. Senate had yet to pass a comprehensive bill fully addressing the coup. On Dec. 15, Congress passed the BURMA Act as part of the $858 billion National Defense Authorization Act of 2023.
For Zo Tum Hmung, the executive director of CAM, the Chin Association of Maryland, advocating for the BURMA Act meant more than putting pressure on the military.
“This is not only about promoting democracy and human rights for us. This is a religious freedom issue,” he told Religion Unplugged.
While CAM is not religious, almost all Chin in the U.S. are Christian. In Myanmar, the Chin — an ethnic group from northeastern Myanmar, Bangladesh and India — are 85% Christian, while only 6% of all people from Myanmar are Christian.
The Chin first converted to Christianity after encountering American Baptist missionaries. The Myanmar military expelled the last missionary from the Chin region in 1966, and the government has continued to target religious minorities ever since.
A new drone picture has revealed a full length of the destruction of Thantlang Baptist Church building, its nunnery and surrounding houses following a series of arson attacks against the civilian buildings and>>>
Photo credit: Thantlang Baptist Youth Department (TBYD) pic.twitter.com/0916G71kX9
— Chindwin News Agency (@TheChindwin) June 14, 2022
A report CAM released describes the burning, destruction or occupation of 22 churches by the military across Chin and Sagaing from February 2021 to June 2022. The report also highlights the killing and arrest of several pastors, one of whom has now been sentenced to 32 years in prison.
Given the military’s targeted attacks against Chin Christians, Hmung is particularly encouraged by language included in the act that affirms U.S. policy holding perpetrators of human rights violations against ethnic minorities accountable.
The Burmese advocacy network
CAM is a member of the Burma Advocacy Group, a collection of 22 organizations, including multiple denominations, that united to advocate for the passage of the BURMA Act.
The Rev. Henry Van Ceu Lyan is the secretary of the Peace and Justice Committee, an official political entity that his denomination Chin Baptist Churches USA formed to advocate for the people of Myanmar and Chin interests. He told ReligionUnplugged.com the network of 100 churches in the U.S. with more than 30,000 members has come together on PJC projects like advocacy campaigns for churches to call and write to their congressional representatives.
“We are Baptists, and Baptists believe in the liberty of freedom,” Lyan said. “Right now because of what’s going on in Burma … we are compelled … to be engaged, to get involved in all this advocacy work. … We thought this is the time that we can be a voice for the voiceless people in our country.”
The Peace and Justice Committee also hosted a breakout session at the International Religious Freedom Summit in June 2022 to create awareness of the military’s atrocities against Chin Christians.
However, Lyan said that involving the older generation in advocacy has been a challenge.
“Many older generations do not understand the importance of advocacy. Moreover, they — this first generation — are not comfortable with reaching out to the U.S. government. They think that as an immigrant something might happen to them as a result of this advocacy,” he told Religion Unplugged. “In my judgment, the fear that was infused in them — our people — while they were in Burma is still present even after they moved to the U.S.”
Since its addition to the NDAA, the BURMA Act has fewer provisions than the original act, but Lyan says that the final version reflects 80% of what committee members were hoping for.
“We should celebrate that our year-long advocacy for the BURMA Act is now included in the NDAA,” he said. He called the act’s passage “tremendous” and “enormous.”
For Christian activist Jan Jan Maran, the co-founder of Global Movement for Myanmar Democracy, the BURMA Act’s passage is also a welcome response to many months of congressional advocacy.
“There’s still always more to do though. … The work never ends,” she said.
While the bill allows the president to sanction the military-owned gas company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, those sanctions must still be signed into law. Maran said the next steps should then include releasing those billions of dollars of frozen assets to the people of Myanmar, who are in need during this time, and enacting global arms embargoes.
What the BURMA Act omits: Rohingya, more help for internally displaced people
Lyan believes that the bill should include more humanitarian aid for the many internally displaced persons, many of them Christian or Rohingya Muslim, in Myanmar. Notably, the version of the BURMA Act included in the NDAA omitted any mention of the Rohingya, despite 27 references to the minority group in the original act. The original bill also authorized specific funding allocation, while the NDAA version did not.
The Chin are not the only Christian-majority ethnic group targeted by the military. The Karen, a group of many subethnicities, are 20-30% Christian and are predominantly from eastern Myanmar along the Thai-Myanmar border, where many internally displaced people have fled.
The Rev. Saw Ler Htoo, the general secretary of the Karen Baptist Churches USA, said that the Thai police work with the Myanmar military to send refugees back.
Karen, a denomination of 102 member churches, has formed a special task force to support refugees and displaced people on the border. Each week, member churches hold collections to send humanitarian assistance, according to Htoo.
Karen has also involved its member churches across the U.S. in protests and encouraged young people in particular to contact their congressional representatives.
“Our major task is to lead our congregation(s) to promote our church members for spiritual nurturing, but due to our country’s situation … we can’t only focus on the spiritual. We also need to … work more for our people suffering in Burma,” Htoo explained.
One of the Churches in Thantlang, Church on the Rock (CORT) is up inflamed now. It is estimated that more than 100 houses have been destroyed by fire including a Church and office building of Thantlang Baptist Church as of 6:40 pm, today.
PhotoThe Chinland Post
2021 October 29 pic.twitter.com/NcbKrM8URh
— Han Nar (@han_nar46945728) October 30, 2021
Like Lyan, Htoo said that the next step is supporting displaced people and refugees. Due to the ongoing violence, refugees cannot return home, so resettling them is a priority. Children in camps have difficulty accessing education and frequently must hide from airstrikes.
Myanmar’s military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. The U.S. government continues to use the name Burma to show its support for Burmese people and pro-democracy activists.
However, Maran does not identify as Burmese. Her ethnicity is Kachin, a people group from the far north of Myanmar estimated to be 95% Christian. The military’s systematic targeting of Kachin churches has occurred for decades. Early in December, Kachin pastor Hkalam Samson was arrested by the military while leaving for medical treatment in Thailand.
Maran’s faith informs and motivates her activism in a deep way. “Everything I do comes from faith first. … That is how I live my life,” she said. “Jesus came for the broken and the oppressed.”
Maran is a first-generation Kachin, though she grew up mainly in the U.S. As a result, she feels as if she does not fully belong to either world.
“My advocacy work is a way of making sense of the world and myself,” Maran said. “It helps me to understand even better my place in the world and my sense of belonging. It also is a way of me reaching my purpose and performing … what is supposed to be the purpose that God designated for me.”
By Isabella Meibauer, Religion Unplugged
Isabella Meibauer is a freelance writer with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. She earned a degree in religion from The King’s College in New York City.