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Judson graduate fears Myanmar could become ‘like North Korea’ following military coup

A Judson College graduate who now lives in her native Myanmar fears the country is in danger of becoming “like North Korea” if the country’s democratically elected government is not restored soon.

K. Soi* told The Alabama Baptist on Feb. 13 that military leaders had taken control of TV and radio broadcasts and were restricting social media sites including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where protesters were sharing information and anti-military sentiments.

Military leaders announced that they would shut down the internet beginning Feb. 14, she said. Reports from the country since then seem to confirm the shutdown has occurred.

The media lockdown follows the Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s military, which seized control of the government and declared a year-long state of emergency. The country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and members of her party are now under house arrest.

Daily protests

K. Soi, who teaches English in Kachin State, said she has been joining thousands of others in daily protests against the military’s actions. The protests, called the CDM or civil disobedience movement, have the support of many Christians in the country.

Videos posted on Facebook by the Kachin Baptist Convention show students marching, holding signs that read “Let True Justice Prevail.” Posts on the page express support for the CDM and for the country’s elected leaders.

“As civilians and as Christians, we do not side with any injustice, authoritarians or centralized government,” said Hkalam Samson, president of Kachin Baptist Convention, which includes 15 associations and more than 300 churches. “St. Augustine said, ‘peace without justice is no peace at all.’ … Quoting Amos 5:24, I urge, let justice flow down like a river.”

Pastors and church leaders are worried about the young marchers, K. Soi said, but the number of church members joining the protests grows daily.

Though the Christian community is not a target of the military’s actions currently, K. Soi fears that might change in the future. COVID-19 concerns have already halted many church gatherings, and humanitarian efforts to help internally displaced peoples in the region have ceased. Thousands of IDPs have lived in camps in Kachin State since 2011, after they fled fighting between the Burmese Military (Tatmataw) and the Kachin Independence Army.

BWA calls for support

The Baptist World Alliance is calling Baptists worldwide to  “Stand Together for Myanmar.”

“All ethnic and religious minorities as well as actors of conscience and conviction are in grave danger,” BWA stated on its website.

BWA quoted one leader in Myanmar, who wrote: “With guns in hand the military has ruled with an iron grip, arresting and destroying many lives. The whole country is mourning in grief.”

Another leader told BWA that the people of Myanmar “have lived under military dictatorship for more than 60 years, and the thought of our children and grandchildren having to go through this life cycle again is a dreadful thought. … We have no guns but a God that protects us. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will fear no evil.”

The BWA has member bodies throughout Myanmar, which encompass 1.7 million people and 5,800 congregations.

BWA leaders urged Baptists globally to:

  • Advocate: BWA has sent letters to key government leaders and invites others to do the same. A downloadable letter is available here.
  • Pray: BWA has created a downloadable prayer guide for those willing to pray for the people of Myanmar.
  • Show solidarity: BWA invites Baptists to wear red ribbons as a sign of solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

Long Baptist history

Christianity in Myanmar, also known as Burma, dates to the early 18th century, when American Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson and his wife, Ann, arrived in the country and began preaching. Judson translated the Bible into Burmese in 1834. By 1851, the Christian population in Burma reached 10,000, and by 1921, the number of Christians had grown to a quarter million.

The Myanmar Baptist Convention was established in 1865, and in 1927, the Myanmar Institute of Theology (founded as the Willis and Orlinda Pierce Divinity School) began in Rangoon (now Yangon) as a Baptist seminary and continues to educate students of many Protestant denominations.

Approximately 6.2% of Myanmar’s population practices Christianity, the second largest religion behind Buddhism, which counts 90% of the country’s population as adherents. About four-fifths of the country’s Christians are Protestants.

Buddhist nationalism is not the driving force of the coup, but military leaders have courted support from Buddhist nationalists, said Anders C. Hardig and Tazreena Sajjad of American University School of International Service, writing at The Conversation.

“The current crisis unfolds in an environment of heightened tensions between Buddhist nationalists and minority groups,” they write. “Since 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence.”

In response to the coup, on Feb. 10, the U.S. ordered new sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar. President Joe Biden issued an executive order that will prevent Myanmar’s generals from accessing $1 billion in assets in the United States.

“The military must relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma,” Biden said.

Biden said the new sanctions will allow his administration to freeze U.S. assets that benefit Myanmar’s military leaders while maintaining support for health care programs, civil society groups and other areas that benefit the country’s people.

Strong-arm tactics

Last week, Myanmar’s military released some 20,000 prisoners, and K. Soi fears the release is a deliberate attempt to convince the people of Myanmar that the military can keep them safer than their elected leaders.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a nonprofit human rights organization, had a different take on the release. The AAPP on Feb. 12 expressed “serious concern” that the amnesty was to “clear space for the detention of political prisoners.”

Another concern, K. Soi said, is the support of China and Russia for the coup.

China and Russia have a long history of support for Myanmar’s military, and on Feb. 2, the two countries blocked the United Nations Security Council from condemning the Myanmar coup. On Feb. 12, China and Russia pulled out from a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained officials.

K. Soi knows of the country’s socialist era in the 1960s and 1970s from history. She is also old enough to remember life in her country prior to the more democratic government established in 2011.

‘Taste of democracy’

Though the current government is not without critics, particularly for its inaction in response to the persecution of Rohingya people in Rakhine State and for its prosecutions of journalists, K. Soi said the people of Myanmar have “tasted democracy for five years” and she wants that to continue.

“There’s no going back now,” she said. “Our country has just started developing. I feel like if this coup succeeds, my dream will be all gone.”

And not only her dream, but the dreams of her students and other young people are at stake as well, she said.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to study in the U.S.,” she said. “I have young nieces and nephews who have hope for better educational opportunities as a result of my experience. When I tell my students about my studies in the U.S., they start to dream about it too.

“If the coup succeeds, that will not happen. Their dreams will drop away,” she said. “We all have the right to dream and to speak up for our rights and our dreams.”

*Name changed for security concerns

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