Children of the Taw Go Village

Photograph by Florence Li

Pursuing freedom, security and human rights in Myanmar

Rev. Florence Li

February 21, 2019

The ethnic Chin from Myanmar have lived a “life on the run” in Kuala Lumpur and in rural areas of Malaysia for at least fifteen years. They fled the impoverished Chin State and faced religious persecution due to their Christian faith, which was introduced to them by American Baptist missionaries Arthur and Laura Carson in the 1880s, following the mission work begun in 1813 by Adoniram and Ann Judson in other parts of Burma. 

On June 13, 2018, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia issued a Community Message to the Chin refugees to revoke their classification as refugees by December 31, 2019. The cessation is based on the rationale that the Chin State is stable and secure and no longer needs international refugee protection. The announcement came as a blow to the 30,000 Chin people in Malaysia.

The UNHCR cessation is strongly protested by the Chin. When December 31 dawns, they will become “stateless” people. Fear, insecurity, health threats, and lack of public education for the children generate a sense of “hopelessness” in the community. Depression, suicide, and trauma-related mental health concerns are common, as reported by their community leaders.

A team of American Baptist leaders had planned to advocate on behalf of the Chin community’s concerns to UNHCR and the U.S. Ambassador in Malaysia during their visit on January 8-10, 2019.  However, due to the U.S. federal government’s shutdown, the meeting was called off. The team visited seven ethnic communities including a collaborative group called “Coalition of Burma Ethnics, Malaysia (COBEM)” comprised of the Kachin Refugee Committee, Organization for Karenni Development, Myanmar Karen Organization, Alliance of Chin Refugees and Chin Refugee Committee, Mon Refugee Organization, Arakan Refugee Resettlement Committee, and Shan Refugee Organization. 

In story after story from each ethnic community we heard of their “hopelessness” and uncertainty about the future. The leadership of COBEM, including strong input from millennials in their 30s, are determined to protect their community by advocating for their rights, providing community services, running learning centers for the children, and pleading for outside supporters to raise concerns on their behalf.

Two team members, Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, Executive Minister of Wisconsin, and Rev. Dr. Robin Stoops, Executive Minister of Nebraska, extended the latter part of their visit with a trip to Chin State. While there, they were able to talk with Baptist leaders and youth, primarily in Kale, Hakha, Thantlang, and Falam townships. Several described the conditions that refugees would come back to if forced to repatriate: uncertainty about documentation, under-performing educational systems, very little promising job opportunities, and disconnection from land and family they were forced to leave behind. Some expressed that even though violent conflicts have lessened, there is still no sense of security, with very little hope of developing one under the current political conditions. One pastor said of repatriates, should they return: “Even though they may be safe physically, they are not safe psychologically.” Still others were hopeful that the faith communities can, in the future, develop a plan to assist with relief and resettlement, but that this would not be enough; there also needed to be strides made by the government to secure a safe return. The team members also heard about other parts of Chin State where active violent conflicts were still very much a concern.  In fact, we, as foreign visitors, were prohibited to travel to such areas. Seeing and hearing about the conditions firsthand, it is understandable why Chin leaders in Malaysia protest the blanket declaration that all Chin refugees no longer need international refugee protection.

Myanmar – Frozen in time since the mid-1960s

The government of the Union of Myanmar is made up of two parts: the democratically-elected civilian government and the military. The latter has controlled the Union for nearly sixty years.  The military regime and its armed conflicts with the ethnic minority people have led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Thailand, India, and Malaysia in addition to many thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their own country. 

The Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) is a complicated process involving different armed ethnic groups and leaders who are attempting to reach an agreement with the military government. An exclusive invitation to different ethnic groups has stalled the peace process.

Among all visits, the one that stands out is the visit to the school for Internally Displaced People (IDP) and an IDP village in Taungoo District near the Karen State. The IDP school enrolls 300 students of junior high and high school age. Some come from nearby villages by walking daily to school. Others come from the mountainside where their families fled from the military; they live in the quarters provided by the school. The moment when the students saw the team enter the assembly hall where a Sunday worship service was to take place, their eyes lit up since they very rarely see outsiders. Their songs and gestures told stories of their captivity and yearning for freedom. Our group had an emotional reaction as we saw the teenagers captured in a forgotten world.

This village of 1,500 residents live in fear as if they might be attacked by the military battalion. Although there is currently a ceasefire agreement in their area, they have no idea when that might end. A crowd of old and young, women and children congregated around wooden benches and told stories of their hard lives. Two villagers in their 90s described how they fled from their original village to the current village. The eyes of women and young children looked with curiosity and followed the team on the dirt road as we departed. When can they walk away free? This is a disturbing and sobering question.

A crowd of old and young, women and children congregated around wooden benches and told stories of their hard lives. Two villagers in their 90s described how they fled from their original village to the current village. The eyes of women and young children looked with curiosity and followed the team on the dirt road as we departed. When can they walk away free?

The ABC team learned much and reflected on what we as American Baptists can do to stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Myanmar. As we debriefed, we had many concerns to ponder, and at the same time we were anxious to tell the ABC family and the world what we learned. 

Rev. Florence Li is national coordinator, Asian Ministries, American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Article includes content contributed by team members.

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

The American Baptist Churches team members on this discovery and advocacy trip included:

Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal, Executive Minister of ABC, Evergreen Association
Rev. Dr. Ann Borquist, Global Servant, Asia-Pacific region, International Ministries
Rev. Joan Friesen, Executive Minister of ABC, Greater Indianapolis
Rev. Florence Li, National Coordinator for Asian Ministries, ABHMS
Rev. Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary Emeritus, ABCUSA
Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, Executive Minister of ABC, Wisconsin
Rev. Jeni Pedzinski, Missionary, New Life Center, Thailand, International Ministries
Rev. Dr. Marsha Scipio, Associate General Secretary, Office of General Secretary, ABCUSA
Rev. Dr. Robin Stoops, Executive Minister of ABC, Nebraska
Rev. Leslie Turley, Area Director, Southeast Asia & Japan, International Ministries 

Our gratitude goes to COBEM, the Myanmar Baptist Convention, Myanmar Institute of Theology, and Immanuel Baptist Church in Hakha, Chin State, who helped to coordinate all the site visits.

To learn more about refugees from Burma (Myanmar) and the diaspora communities in the U.S., please contact:

Rev. Florence Li –  Phone: 610-768-2468
Rev. Leslie Turley –  Phone: 610-768-2298
Rev. Joan Friesen –  Phone: 317-494-9327

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