Demonstrators gestures at riot police during a protest against the military coup in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 9 February 2021.

Photo by Maung Lonlan/EPA/EFE

Burma crisis—A rough road to democracy and freedom

A statement of the American Baptist Churches USA Burma Refugee Commission
May 4, 2021

On February 1, the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw), in the face of an overwhelming landslide by the NLD (National League for Democracy) party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, staged a military coup. The elected parliamentarians had gathered in Myanmar/Burma’s capitol in preparation for their seating in the new parliament on that day. As military personnel swarmed the capitol, many were arrested including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the president, and vice-president of the country and placed in prison. 

Even though the Tatmadaw was privileged by the Constitution of 2008 with a full third of all seats in the parliament and veto power over certain governmental policy matters, the landslide victory by the NLD frightened them into action to secure their hegemony in the face of a surging democracy movement. Their justification was that such a landslide by the NLD could only have been achieved by voter fraud. Trumped-up charges now have been leveled at those arrested, and accusations of torture by the military are rife.

Immediately, the populace mounted peaceful demonstrations in the growing Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to free those who had been arrested and detained and restore the elected leaders to office. Largely led by students, the CDM has increasingly gathered strength across the country and internationally in their effort to restore democracy.

Noted for their ruthlessness in their previous attacks against the ethnic Christian population and the Rohingya, the Tatmadaw has responded violently to the CDM. Over 600 persons have now been killed while participating in demonstrations. The average age of those slain is 17. Over 6,000 people have fled to neighboring countries.

In the meantime, a resistance government, Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), has been put in place by those parliamentarians who were able to escape arrest. Those leaders have been accused of high treason by the military and are being shunted from safe haven to safe haven to avoid being seized. The Tatmadaw, long scorned for its disregard for human rights, is pressing its full might against the restoration of democracy in Burma.

The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), long scorned for its disregard for human rights, is pressing its full might against the restoration of democracy in Burma. The threat to the people of Myanmar has spurred Baptists from across the U.S. and parts of Myanmar toward a common message: we all desire peace for the people of Myanmar. We lift the people of Burma and the diaspora communities in prayer. We pray democracy and freedom shall prevail.

The non-hierarchical structure of Baptists is a consistent thread of Baptist history. Baptists tend to split, splinter, divide, and go their separate ways. But the threat to the people of Myanmar has spurred Baptists from across the U.S. and parts of Asia toward a common message: they all desire peace for the people of Myanmar. Several groups have offered a galvanizing call for peace and unity including the Burmese Christian Association of North America, Karen Baptist Churches USA, Chin Baptist Churches USA, Chin Baptist Association of North America, Kachin American Baptist Association, Kachin Baptist Churches USA, Association of Chin Refugees, Malaysia, and Malaysia Karen Organization. Prayers and statements from these groups can be found on the Call to Prayer for Myanmar website.

The American Baptist Churches, USA Office of the General Secretary has been involved in advocacy work as well, sending multiple rounds of letters to President Biden, Vice President Harris, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, various offices of the United Nations, and at least fifteen U.S. Senators. These letters call for recognition of the democratically elected leaders (200 of whom are still detained), sanctions toward the business sector and military leaders, protected status for embassy staff members supporting the Civil Disobedience Movement, a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (i.e., Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression), and support of the CRPH. American Baptist congregations are also extending prayers and calls for advocacy in response to a call for support of congregations in the Burma Diaspora from former executive minister, Paul Aita.

Two bills are pending in the Senate and one in the House. Specifically, we are encouraged by Sen. Jeff Merkley and 21 other Senators who introduced S.Res.105 on March 11, 2021 which calls on President Biden to:

  1. Investigate and hold the military leaders accountable for human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity (including sex and gender-based violence) and/or genocide;
  2. Suspend all political and financial support to the State Administrative Council and the peace process including to the Joint Peace Fund; and
  3. Make a formal determination on behalf of the United States designating the military’s actions against the Rohingya as genocide.

American Baptist involvement with Burma (Myanmar today) dates back over 200 years, when Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first American missionaries, landed in the port of Rangoon on July 13, 1813. The Judsons and other early missionaries introduced Christianity to the Burmese, Chin, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Shan, and many other ethnic groups of Burma. As a result of the American Baptist mission work, Baptists constitute the largest Christian organization in Myanmar, currently numbering over 1.7 million members in 17 Baptist Conventions. The Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC) based in Rangoon (also known as Yangon) is the umbrella organization that oversees the Conventions.   

International Ministries (IM), the global ministries program, continues its support to MBC and related Baptist churches through relief and development, educational scholarships, theological training, church development, and medical work in the country.   

American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS), the domestic ministries program, is in full support of the established church ministries in the U.S. We lift the people of Burma and the diaspora communities in prayer. We pray democracy and freedom shall prevail.

The following Burma Refugee Commission members assisted in writing this statement:

Rev. Dr. Roy Medley, general secretary emeritus, American Baptist Churches, USA
Rev. Dr. Jeff Woods, acting general secretary, American Baptist Churches, USA
Rev. Dr. Saw Ler Htoo, general secretary, Karen Baptist Churches, USA
Mr.  Zo Tum Hmung, executive director, Chin Association of Maryland, Inc.
Rev. Leslie Turley, director of Southeast Asia & Japan, International Ministries
Rev. Florence Li, national coordinator of Asian Ministries, American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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