The Tipping Point?

Due to the anti-government protests of 2007 and the reaction of the authorities, Myanmar suddenly became front-page news last September.

Months later, with the world still watching, the U.S., UK and France issued a statement urging the country’s leaders to restore democracy and improve human rights.

The statement, issued on January 24, 2008, calls for the return to Myanmar of UN Special Adviser Ibrahim Gambari, demands the release of political prisoners, and highlights the need for ‘a substantive, time-bound dialogue with democratic leaders and ethnic minority representatives’.

Up until recently, Myanmar’s military junta more or less managed to stay out of the limelight, but now that’s changed. But what changes can Christians in Myanmar expect and what is the significance of the events of last year?

In August 2007 demonstrations began in response to the government increasing fuel prices overnight. Petrol and diesel prices doubled, gas prices tripled. Public transport prices shot up accordingly.

Many workers found themselves in a situation where they had to spend more than half their salary just to get to work and back, with little left over for daily needs.

A few people protested and were swiftly taken into custody. But unlike protesters in previous years, they were released after one night or a couple of days – a big difference to the 20-year jail sentences imposed before.

Soon others expressed their frustration. Some women decided to walk the seven miles to their workplace instead of taking the bus. By the time they reached the centre of town, several hundred people had joined them.

Buddhist monks expressed their solidarity, and held quiet vigils. One of the vigils, in a town called Pakoku in Central Myanmar, was broken up by army units, leaving several monks injured. This proved to be a turning point.

A senior monk criticised the government in a radio broadcast, saying that the fuel price increases weren’t justified, and asking the government to reverse the decision.

The All Burma Association of Buddhist Monks called on monks throughout the country to protest against the government’s handling of the situation, and asking for an apology. None was forthcoming.

In Yangon, thousands of monks gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda every day at noon. From there, they marched downtown, witnessed by thousands of cheering and hand-clapping civilians.

The movements gathered momentum, and soon tens of thousands of people marched peacefully in the main streets of the cities, demanding democracy.

The situation soon turned confrontational. Trucks with armed soldiers criss-crossed the streets, and several units in riot gear took up positions at street corners. Then the young people began taunting the soldiers in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

Not long afterwards, the troops opened fire – mainly with rubber bullets – or shot over the heads of the demonstrators – in marked contrast to the demonstrations of 1988, when the troops shot into the crowds, killing thousands. Nevertheless, several were killed and many more injured.

During night time raids, police and army units picked took the leaders of the demonstrations – monks and civilians alike – into custody.

Soon, as a result of the clamp-down, and with no visible leaders left, the protest movement lost momentum. Spontaneous gatherings of people were soon dispersed; the few small skirmishes quickly dealt with. A night time curfew from 9pm till 6am, and a reinforcement of an old law, by which no more than five people were allowed to gather together, brought an end to it all.

After this, the authorities closed many of the monasteries, and defrocked the monks. Many were sent home, with many more detained in make-shift temporary centres.

By now people needed to return to work. Though dazed, frustrated and angry, the people knew only too well that life has to go on. Things went back to normal again, but with less money, less satisfaction, less hope.

And yet … maybe things are changing. On November 7, 2007, the government said it had released 2,847 people out of the 2,927 detained for their involvement in the September demonstrations. Four days later, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN’s special envoy on human rights in Myanmar visited the country’s military authorities, having been refused entry since 2003.

The five-day visit to investigate human rights in Myanmar sent a positive indication of the authorities’ desire to co-operate with the UN. However a number of commentators see this, as well as the government’s beginning the process of drafting a new constitution as part of a roadmap to civilian rule, as a purely political move.

Others see any sign of change, however small, as potentially significant. “Based on the de Tocqueville principle [Alexis de Tocqueville, a political scientist of the 1800s], dictatorships are at their most vulnerable when they start to reform.”

A Christian colleague working in Myanmar asks, “Could it be that things are beginning to open up in Myanmar? That what happened could prove a pivotal moment in the spiritual history of the country?

“With many monasteries closed, Buddhism is no longer so evident. The merit-making tradition of giving food to the monks cannot easily be practiced, and monks are no longer readily available to provide the teaching of Buddhist tenets.

“Could it be that, unbeknown to them, the country’s leaders are building a highway for the gospel?”

Another Myanmar watcher isn’t so sure, “Although outward forms of Buddhist observance may have diminished, the open stand of the monks may have potentially strengthened their influence.

“Having said that, the events of last year have certainly shaken most Burmese up and opened people’s hearts to the big questions of life. It has put Myanmar back on the map and got people praying.”

Could it be that after almost 200 years of hard and often fruitless work, Adoniram Judson’s vision of the cross of Christ being firmly planted in Myanmar will finally become a reality?

Your prayers could make the difference.

Pray

  • Those seeking to bring healing and reconciliation.
  • The people of Myanmar – that good will come out of recent traumatic events.
  • The international response. There has been widespread condemnation of the crackdown by the United Nations, ASEAN and other international groups. Many have called for tougher sanctions, but these normally affect the poorest people first.
  • Myanmar’s Church. Although nearly 10 per cent of the population is said to believe, Christians come mainly from minority people groups with little or no access to the political process. (The people who control the government and army are ethnic Bamar).
  • The many thousands of Buddhist monks who have been defrocked. The very bedrock of their existence has been shaken. May they find the true Prince of Peace in this time of crisis.

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