The Church in Burma
Twenty-Five Years of Isolation
by Maung Maung
Less than three years after the end of World War II, in January 1948, my country, Burma (recently renamed the Union of Myanmar), became independent. But almost from the beginning there were troubles. There were various insurgency movements—Communist and others—fighting the new government. And in the late 50s the ruling party was torn by internal struggles. Our last democratic election was in 1960. U Nu received the vote, but he was unable to control the strife among his own supporters. Then in March 1962 General Ne Win led a military coup and established his revolutionary program, the Burmese Way to Socialism. Under this program the military government, which was very suspicious of all outside influences, cut Burma off from the outside world. This has affected all of life in Burma, and in the Church also, to this day.
Until Ne Win all the churches had been under the direction of foreign missionaries. Then in 1965 the government nationalized all the mission schools, hospitals, etc.; in 1966 all the foreign missionaries were asked to leave, unless they had been there before the war. Almost all the Protestant missionaries left the country—only a few Roman Catholic fathers remained. It was a great shock to the Church, because the nationals had always worked under missionary leadership and they were dependent on the missionaries. Until that crisis they had had no chance to develop their own leadership. But the expulsion was both bad and good. Of course, at first the nationals were not prepared, but in the next ten years they learned to handle the situation. It did not take long—they had no choice. Today most of the Burmese churches are self-governing and self-supporting, although there is still great financial need.
Even after the expulsion, there was still some contact with the missionaries, but it was much more difficult. Different groups were affected in different ways. Campus Crusade for Christ, for instance, sent its people to Burma, not officially as missionaries, but in other capacities. And they established their organization among the native people, so that Crusade has been much less affected by the expulsion than some other groups. But those identified as missionaries could come back only on a tourist visa, which was good for three days. (I think that it is seven days now.) But they are not supposed to preach in the churches. (They do their work in the homes.) Other groups of foreigners who work in Burma under such conditions go to Bangkok in Thailand when their visas expire and get them renewed and come back. Missionaries who want to stay and work in Burma can do the same thing.
So the revolutionary government, which has held power from the 60s up to the present, has carried out policies which have isolated the Burmese Church and made life difficult for it in many ways. When the government nationalized the schools and hospitals, many closed down. Many times the government asked a headmaster to leave so that they could appoint someone they wanted. With this policy obviously there would be many problems. Institutions which had been connected with the Church were thus cut off.
I should point out that there are essentially two groups of Christians in Burma: those represented in the Burmese Council of Churches and the Evangelicals. Those I am calling Evangelicals do not register with the government. So they, in particular, suffer many things. For example, the door to the outside world is especially closed for them. Even when they have an invitation to a foreign conference and the cost of their transportation, they are still denied. From 1966 to at least 1980, I think, church leaders were not allowed to leave Burma for ouside events. Now, perhaps, the government is less restrictive, when a good reason for the travel is given.
Religious books, printed either in English or Burmese, cannot easily get into the country. There has been a very heavy restriction. Many times imported religious books were just held at the custom house. It is still a big problem to get books, even for religious libraries. What people do is to get books sent to Bangkok, and then when someone is going there, he or she can bring two or three books back with them.
In the Burmese Way of Socialism there are many projects and programs. Many times on Sundays there would be nationwide calls for volunteer labor, like road construction, for instance. Most of the time, in fact, it was on Sunday. Of course, the government doesn’t pay any money, and you have to do whatever you are assigned. If you displease the authorities, it could cost you. The secret police are always watching. That is why even while I am staying in the United States, I must use a false name when I speak or write about the conditions in Burma.
In such an atmosphere, you can understand that there would be problems with holding house fellowships, especially in the big cities. The houses are crowded together and apartments next to apartments, with little privacy. Even the houses sometimes have only a plywood partition between them. So if you play a radio, your neighbor doesn’t need one. And if you sing till twelve or one o’clock at night, naturally you cannot keep from bothering your neighbor. So, if we are to have a time of Christian fellowship in our home, we are required to apply for permission from the community council, which has authority over the immediate community.
So, for instance, if I wanted to have a Christmas celebration in my home—if I wanted to invite some friends and have singing, preaching, and fellowship and other activitites like that—it would be noisy of course. And I would have to explain this to the local council, and they would have to give permission. Otherwise, if your neighbor complains, you are guilty of disturbing the peace. So you cannot really have fellowship freely.
Even in the countryside if you want to have a larger meeting, you must get permission. The government doesn’t seem to want many people gathering together. Under Ne Win, community offices were organized throughout the country. But it is better in the countryside, because in a small village you have your own house and you don’t bother your neighbor as much. And the atmosphere is more like that of one big family. You can sense this strong family feeling in occasional joint services of several denominations. (There is a difference, of course, between Catholic and Protestant services, but between most of the Protestant churches the denominational difference is not such an important thing.) I know of cases where the tribal Protestant Christians hold combined worship services once every three months or so, with all the Christians in an area worshipping together. In such services each language group sings in their own language, and the preaching and teaching is in Burmese as a common language.
Burma today is a very poor country, where the per capital income is less than $180. And things have not improved under the military-backed Burma Socialist Program Party, or as it has now been renamed the National Unity Party. There is much corruption. To get things done you must come to meetings with an envelope with money. And the Christians are a small, poor minority.
Ethnically, the people are mostly Burmese; maybe five percent are Christian. Of the Christians, ninety percent are not ethnic Burmese, but tribal peoples. The ethnic Burmese are mostly Buddhists. There are some Moslems and Hindus also. And I should also say there is a distinct Chinese Population. They tend to be better off financially and educationally than the Burmese majority. So there may be jealousy and tension. In 1966 there were anti-Chinese riots, and many Chinese were killed and their property destroyed. But the Chinese are not looked down upon; they are envied. But the tribal people, most of the Christians, are looked down on. They are even poorer than the rest and not well educated. They do not speak the Burmese language well. And the government does not seen interested in doing much to develop them. The government does not work for them; they are made to work for the government. So, there is a racism in Burma.
Evangelism among the Buddhist Burmese proceeds slowly. In my situation, it took me five years to become a Christian because I had many questions. I first met Christian students when I was at the university in Rangoon. First, they asked me about my Buddhism. Then they said, “We will try to show you the plan of salvation and we will pray that you become a Christian.” I enjoyed being with them and liked much of what they said, especially one thing. They said, “When we Christians die, we do not have to worry. We will go to heaven to see our Father.” That touched my heart. They all said this. I had never found anything in Buddhist teaching so sure and comforting, that promised so much about a future. But that was just the beginning. During those years, there were so many who witnessed and prayed to bring me to Christ. So when I became a Christian, naturally I felt that God was calling me to witness, too. I tried to do this with both Burmese and tribal people. I even went back to the Buddhist monks with whom I had lived and studied for many years. They would ask me a lot of questions that I could not answer very well at the time—questions about the Bible, God, and Christian beliefs. It was not the time for me to be witnessing, but to be studying. I realized that I should study first and then I would do better in my witness. And God opened a way for me to study—that is how I came to America.
When I got here, I began to realize how little Americans knew about Burma. Even some graduate students might not know whether Burma was a city or a country. Of course some of that has changed with recent events. But I feel there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding.
But I do wish that people in the West had a better knowledge and more concern for Burma, which has now been isolated for over twenty-five years. I especially wish that the Christians here would be more aware of the Church in Burma and its needs. It is growing, but the growth is made slower because of financial burdens. Many churches cannot support their own pastors. One pastor whom I know very well is pastoring twenty-two villages—going to them on foot. He will be gone three months before coming back to his family for a while. Then he has to go out again, and so it is always. For many pastors this is the way it is. So we are struggling to support more pastors.
Also, it may seem strange, but we need church buildings. In America I see big church buildings and small numbers. Over there we have no buildings but crowds of people. So we need buildings and here you need people.
As I said earlier, the different denominational churches were dependent on the foreign missions, and when the expulsion came, the money was cut off. This was very frustrating. Then to make matters worse, since Ne Win’s revolutionary government came to power in the 60s, it has devalued the currency at least three times. In 1964, without any warning, they announced a monetary change. I am not sure what motivated this—if it was not directed against the black market. But whatever the cause, in 1987 the government did this again twice. The last time was in September or October of 1987, which was an immediate cause for the unrest which led to the resignation of Ne Win in July the next year and the present dissensions. Sixty percent of the paper currency value was voided. And this affected the churches, especially those Christians in the small villages. There are no banks there, and the money is kept in cash.
So our needs are very basic and practical in a way that more prosperous Christians here may not have realized. The American Church seems concerned with programs and media. It is very different for us. We need pastors and basic buildings.
Another difference is in our approach and emphasis. In America you have freedom of religion but no freedom in the way you worship. But I think that we have a freedom in the way we worship. We do not seem so ruled by programs and schedules. It is not only a matter of the Word being freely or truly preached and taught but the atmosphere. Even when we worship in less than good conditions, we feel the Spirit. Here the preacher often depends so much on his notes. I wonder if this does not make him weak in the Spirit. I’m not against notes, but it is like he is just reading—nothing more. Such preachers don’t seem to be depending on God. I have seen this often in this country.
There is also the matter of how Christians live—Christian lifestyle. Again I think of basic differences, not just between your prosperity and our poorer, simpler lives, but on moral matters. The way young people live in this country does not agree with the way we think at all. Our Christian people cannot understand how young people here can live like husband and wife before marriage. I have seen this accepted and practiced, even at certain American seminaries. And when other people or even the parents know about it, they say nothing. Of course I know that there are Christians here who are concerned about such things, but there are so many who call themselves Christians who are not.
In Burma we don’t question things like the resurrection of Jesus—that he rose bodily from the dead. But here, even in the Christian schools, many students do not believe. The missionaries who came to the Burmese people and were our spiritual fathers brought us from darkness into the light. And we were taught that the Bible was the Word of God; that is what we still believe.
I say these things to show how different the conditions of Christianity are between the Church in Burma and the Church in the West. I do not want to seem too critical in what I say. Certainly there are many things we can learn from American Christians. They are so giving and generous, and not only in the Church. We see some giving ten percent of what they earn to help other people, even in other countries. I think we Burmese need to learn this tithing.
Finally, I must say that no one can know which way things will go in Burma or what the Church there can expect. It is complex and unpredictable. Under the revolutionary government of Ne Win there were many restrictions and burdens. We have been cut off from the rest of the world. But there was some small type of religious freedom, that is, the country was not completely tied to Buddhism. Before, under U Nu’s leadership, Burma was officially a Buddhist country and many of its laws were made to favor the Buddhists. For this reason, in our present difficulties, Christians might not favor a return of the aged U Nu to replace the military government. And for various reasons he does not now seem to be a likely successor. The military government has said that there will be free elections—at one time they said they intended them by the end of 1989. We shall see. But whatever happens, please remember the small, relatively poor and vulnerable Christian minority. Though we are so much still cut off, remember our needs and pray for us.
Maung Maung is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the author, a perceptive observer of the situation in Burma.
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“The Church in Burma” first appeared in the Fall 1989 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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