Myanmar—The civil war rages on, but in the midst of tragedy some positive news sets root. Unofficial reports imply that the People’s Defense Force (PDF), which organized in response to the military junta just over a year ago on Feb. 1, 2021, is beginning to successfully push back the military’s forces in parts of the country. The Irrawaddy, an independent English and Burmese news agency, has reported that up to 3,000 military officers and soldiers have defected to date. Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Myo Min Tun’s high-profile defection in February was the latest. Defecting soldiers are in danger and the PDF and National League for Democracy (NLD), the democratic government formed by the protestors opposite to the military government, have established a reputation of accepting these military soldiers and helping them hide. Recently the Australian government announced its intention to provide asylum to defecting Myanmar military soldiers. Since many soldiers do not want to fight their own people, this may encourage defections and further weaken the military.
To be sure, war’s atrocities continue. The military bombs, burns villages and arrests individuals who threaten the military’s rule. As an example, The Irrawaddy reports that the military focused efforts in Khin-U township in the north central part of the country in March. This resulted in nearly 750 homes being burned, about 7,000 residents homeless, and more than 30,000 displaced. In all, nearly 9,000 homes have been burned down in this area. Of course, the PDF counter attacks in response. And these conflicts increase the death toll. One is reminded of James 4:1-3.
At this time, our brethren in Myanmar are safe, but the situation is challenging for them. Inflation has set in. Fuel costs have doubled. Data costs have doubled (most Burmese have cell phones, but not data plans—they buy data as needed), hindering communications. All banks, and most offices and services, remain closed. The majority of people do not have jobs now.
Our United Church of God (UCG) brethren along with Living Church of God brethren are mostly in the same village in the southern delta region. This area is generally free of conflict as it benefits by being flat with open rice fields, which makes it difficult for either the military forces or the PDF to operate without notice. Our deacon there reports the safety of the brethren.
The members have been able to gather for services throughout most of COVID-19 and this civil war, which is a blessing. The village headman (like a mayor) gave approval for the Church to stay open for services initially in groups of 10, but now the entire group can meet. In the same village, the Baptist church has been closed since COVID-19 started. Davidson Leh Bey coordinates a Karen (pronounced care-in; the language and name of one of the largest ethnic groups in Myanmar) Zoom service each Sabbath with the UCG brethren in Myanmar and with their family members in Singapore and other locations (Davidson Leh Bey is a deacon living in England and is Saw Leh Bey’s eldest son—please see the article titled, “Brethren in Myanmar Face Intense Civil Unrest,” on page 13 of the May-June 2021 issue of United News for the history of Saw Leh Bey and those called in the south of Myanmar). We are also excited to have a prospective member in the village who attended services during the Feast of Tabernacles last year and weekly services since.
Members continue to plant rice, although inflation has driven the input costs higher. With the government (military) as the largest, and often mandated buyer, it is feared the market price during the next harvest may decline. Some of our young adults wish to work in Malaysia and Singapore on two-year contracts (a common occurrence for Myanmar youth). This would be good as it will provide a safe haven for them during the civil war. However, there has been difficulty getting these work contracts and the required paperwork from the military government to leave. Interestingly, there is discussion that the military may start extending the paperwork faster to these young people. The reasoning is that if the young people leave, then they won’t fight alongside the PDF. But fear of conscription still hangs over our young people. They must be careful navigating this process.
Moving four hours north to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, we have UCG members as well as COGWA and Church of God, Myanmar members. Members report that they must be careful both in where and when they go, and what they say on their phones. That later was emphasized on a recent phone call with one of them where I asked a specific question to which they would not reply, citing concerns over monitoring. Death on the streets is a too-frequent occurrence. The military reportedly has solid control of the city at this time and any civil disobedience is quickly quelled. The northern part of the city seems to contain more PDF and PDF sympathizers, and periodic forceful fighting occurs in this area. Thankfully, we do not have UCG brethren in that specific area, but unfortunately, our prospective member does live there. Our brethren and prospective member remain unharmed and are able to carefully go out to purchase necessities. Continued prayers for God’s protection are needed.
We do also continue to reach out to our prospective member there. He came to us by writing to the home office more than two years ago. A planned visit during the Spring Holy Days in 2020 was intended when COVID-19 canceled travel into and out of the country. He spends a great deal of time working with the poor, widows, orphans and others who need help. He and we are anticipating the time when we can meet. This man’s self-taught English is very good. He is a Sabbath-keeper, but is still learning about the Holy Days. When COVID-19 broke out, he lost his job. We hired him to translate the UCG Holy Days booklet into Burmese, and Davidson confirmed his translation was very good. So, we hope to engage him more in this way once we can figure out how to get more money into the country safely—a complex problem, part of which we have covered in other updates.
Our friends at Church of God, Myanmar about four hours north of Yangon also remain safe to date. I was able to have about an hour-long conversation with the elder there this past week. He recently baptized seven young adults who have been attending the school and Church there for many years. We rejoice with our Father, Elder Brother and these young people! The school remains open and they continue to plant and improve their agricultural land that many UCG members contributed to help purchase. They have also recently acquired a few head of cattle. Of course, they continue to be an example in the community serving all and teaching God’s way.
However, their compound is within 10 miles of the third-largest military base in Myanmar and about a mile off the main road upon which the military travels often. While they are okay, it is clear that the constant concern for his family and students weighs heavy on the elder’s mind. But their faith and trust in God is strong.
Prayers to our Father and Jesus Christ for continued safety and help for our brethren and prospective members are welcomed and appreciated. Next issue, we will discuss what plans and groundwork have been laid to further the gospel in this part of the world.