“There is no telling how long the crisis will last.”
For the estimated 4.4 million Christians in Myanmar, these words from one of Open Doors’ partners in the country provide insight into what followers of Christ in Myanmar face as they look toward an uncertain future.
Since February 1, when a military coup began with the arrest of civilian government officials, a reported total of more than 100 people have now died at the hands of the country’s military in deadly protests; hundreds have been arrested in night raids. At least 38 civilians were killed March 3 and last weekend the country saw its bloodiest days since the military takeover with at least 51 civilian protesters killed by security forces. The military has also changed Myanmar’s penal code, giving them the ability to arrest people without warrants and throw people in prison for 20 years if it’s found they are acting against the State.
Our partners in the country tell Open Doors that protests are increasing, and the military is brutally cracking down on the protestors using force, teargas, rubber bullets and live rounds. Many of the protestors are protesting out of a collective memory of the history of Myanmar—the country (No. 18 on the 2021 World Watch List) was ruled by a military junta from 1962 until 2011..
Brother Lwin, one of our on-the-ground partners, describes the political and economic situation as “very unstable and volatile right now.”
With the growing violence, believers continue to be caught in between the military and civic protesters. “We are concerned for their safety,” says Open Doors communications director for Asia, Jan Vermeer.
Because Myanmar’s military supports Buddhism as the one and only religion in the country, Christians in the country are fearful. Weeks after the coup, Buddhist hardliner group Ma Ba Tha expressed its support for the military government.
“There’s a very strong Buddhist nationalism [movement in Myanmar],” Brother Lwin explains. “The military is also very much a part of that. They are there to protect Buddhism in every area. If you look at the military and the Buddhist leaders from the believers’ side, they are no different from the government; they are one.”
Church in the time of military takeover
Believers from Chin State pray in the midst of the protests.
Min Naing, another Open Doors partner, shares that since the coup, many people could not participate in online worship. “People were disturbed by the screams and protests of the arrests,” he says. “I am also disturbed because I see with my eyes that people are being arrested.”
Local partner Daisy tells us that while many churches in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay have temporarily stopped all physical and online meetings, services continue in the remote areas of the Naga Hills.
“Churches in Kayah State have stopped meeting for fellowship at night because of curfew restrictions,” she says. “Since the military coup, the church has closed their children’s fellowship, as naturally, children weren’t allowed to go outside.”
Getting information to others is becoming more difficult, she says, adding that pastors are struggling to inform and reach out to their church. In many of the same ways, the coup is creating the same economic and food challenges for pastors and already-marginalized believers as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now, as the believers are staying home, people don’t have work, businessmen are also home, so the tithe and donations in the church are also decreasing,” Daisy explains. “Since, the people are now home, the real economic hardship will start.”
There’s also a reluctance to communicate via phone calls due to security risks. Due to the night curfew, the church’s evening services have been halted because there is “fear in the minds of the people,” Daisy says.
Pastor Thura* from Bago Division in the south-central region tells us: “Everyone is scared. I was worshiping with only a few people, but I am afraid that the authorities would come and stop the worship.”
Despite these fears, God’s work is continuing. “We are becoming more and more careful,” Daisy says. Open Doors’ partners like her and Min Naing are offering a weekly online Bible study for pastors from remote areas. “Connection isn’t always stable, but we press on.”
Open Doors’ Vermeer says believers are adjusting to the new reality: “With increasing restrictions—both online and offline, with internet blackouts and night curfews—believers are finding different ways to be salt and light at this time and to continue encouraging one another.”
‘I dare not imagine’
The pastors Open Doors has spoken to still remember what the country was like under military rule in the twentieth century. The time was marked by brutal atrocities and human rights abuses.
Pastor Ko Ko Thun*, an elderly pastor, tells Open Doors: “When I recall the previous military junta, I become so angry and upset that I want to vomit.”
“When I was still a student, I remember them checking me and my friends’ identity cards and making us stand under the rain. They also confiscated our books. Once, we carried our own rice to cook in our hostel, and the soldiers accused us of supplying rice to the insurgent groups and detained us.”
“There are many things I can share,” Ko Ko Thun continues. “When I think deeply, if the military is going to rule over us again—I cannot, I dare not imagine—my tears can’t stop.”
Pastor Zay from Rakhine State says: “It feels like our hope has been taken away. Our dreams, hopes, vision and freedom are taken away. Our lifetime has been full of grief, fear and trouble under the military regime. People are suffering because of the war. Job opportunities are also difficult at the moment, and we are depressed by the military coup because we had hoped for a ceasefire.”
‘The churches are praying’
Open Doors’ Vermeer urges prayer for Myanmar and the believers there: “As instability grows in Myanmar, so does our need to pray,” he says. “While our partners do their best to respond on the ground, let’s trust God to be their strength and shield. Our prayers go where we cannot.”
As connectivity becomes slightly more reliable, reports from Open Doors’ local church contacts have been trickling in. “Pastors are admonishing their members to pray and intercede for the country in their homes,” Daisy shares. “In less restricted areas, some pastors and believers have gathered for prayer meetings in their churches.
Pastor Philemon* told Peter*, an Open Doors partner and Persecution Preparedness training facilitator, “During this military coup, and with protests going on in the country, I encourage my church members to follow what we have learned in persecution preparedness training—that is, not to render evil with evil, but to do good to those who persecute us. And I have requested my church members to not join the public protests.”
Maung* a pastor from Mandalay says: “The churches are praying. We are calm but scared at the same time.”
Top photo: Chin refugees (a Christian minority community from Myanmar) shout slogans as the mock coffins of Commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and Chinese President Xi Jinping are set on fire during a protest against military coup in Myanmar, in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Photo by Anshuman Akash/Abaca/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)
- Pray for peace in Myanmar. Pray for peace to prevail and reconciliation between the military and the insurgent groups.
- Pray with grieving families who have lost loved ones in the protests.
- Pray with churches and their leaders in Myanmar as they navigate the challenges and continue to pray. Ask God to remind them of His power and His omniscience.
- Pay specifically for internally displaced persons who are facing difficult times.
- Pray for the political situation. Pray for the safety of leaders who are detained and for the believers to be strong, calm, wise and careful.
- Pray for the security of Open Doors partners in the country. It is expected that security will tighten, and monitoring will be intensified in the coming days.
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