From the brick Anglican Cathedral in Yangon (Rangoon) to a bamboo-thatched house church in a village without electricity or running water, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning spoke of the hope that comes from Christian solidarity in suffering during a five-day visit to the troubled country of Myanmar (Burma).
Presiding Bishop Browning and his wife, Patti, made the pastoral visit to Archbishop Andrew Mya Han and the Anglican Church of the Province of Myanmar, 12-17 January, to learn how the Episcopal Church might assist the Church there.
Myanmar's military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC), has clung to power despite a 1990 popular election that would have swept Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into the presidency. Although the Government recently released Suu Kyi from house arrest, and has been touting a new and more open Myanmar, the human rights of rank-and-file citizens remain severely restricted.
Without referring to the regime, Presiding Bishop Browning still preached at two church services on biblical texts about justice in the face of oppression. And as the Brownings and the Episcopal Church's Peace and Justice Officer, the Revd Brian Grieves, met with some of Myanmar's 55,000 Anglicans in Yangon and outlying villages, they repeatedly expressed the concern of the American Church for Myanmar's plight.
Efforts at evangelism in the province's six dioceses have been energetic and highly successful, Archbishop Mya Han said, especially among some of the hill tribes that live in the remote regions of Myanmar's forests. For the most part, he said, the Government has given the Anglican churches free rein to pursue their ministries, and has given Archbishop Mya Han extensive freedom to travel, though a strong official bias favours the majority religion of Buddhism.
The Archbishop spoke of how in rural areas issues of peace and justice--common topics in other countries--must be introduced slowly. "Sometimes when I preach, people from the congregation come and say, 'You are not preaching the Christian gospel,'" said Archbishop Mya Han. "They don't understand that this is the Christian gospel."
He said that he has particular hope for expanding lay training--one area where US assistance would be welcome--so that "we can reclaim the faith and proclaim the Gospel." Without adequate instruction, "We are Christians in name only," he said. "We must know first our own faith."
Meeting Suu Kyi
The Brownings and Grieves received an hour's primer on how political rights are abrogated in Myanmar when they met with Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon. Earlier they had joined the crowd of several thousand people that gathers outside her gate each weekend to hear the slight but forceful Nobel Peace Prize laureate declaim about democracy.
"It's very difficult to develop in a country where you don't know where you are. You don't know what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do," Suu Kyi said in her meeting with the Browning party. "In Burma, people don't know what is ruling their lives so the existing laws mean nothing at all."
According to Myanmar law, the authorities can not detain anyone for more than 24 hours without a warrant. "Of course this is ignored all the time," she said. "They just pull people in whenever they like, they keep them for as long as they like." Such arrests are often to what is cynically called the "don't like you" section for people the authorities just "don't like," she said.
Suu Kyi urged Church communities not to support the Government's efforts at economic growth, which only solidifies the regime's power. Little of the current development of hotels and other facilities designed to attract foreign tourists in an ambitious "Visit Myanmar Year 1996" campaign benefits the common people who remain poor, she said. And many of the lauded improvements to the country's infrastructure, like the reconstruction of roads, are being accomplished with forced labour as villagers are required to "volunteer" time on work crews or pay heavy fines.
Her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), seeks "a real open-market economy that is open to everyone and not just to the privileged," she said. "We don't want a half-open or a slightly ajar market economy allowing in only certain people."
Improvements have come--the Brownings' meeting with her could not have occurred during her six years of house arrest--but "there is great danger that half measures that have now been taken might prevent real complete measures," she said. "I'm afraid that to invest in Burma now might mean to encourage this view that half measures are enough."
Ministry to the Karen
In at least two of Myanmar's eastern dioceses near Thailand-- Toungoo and Pa'an--the concerns of the Anglican Church are closely tied with those of the Karen (pronounced kah-REN) ethnic group, the single largest group represented in the Church. Locked in a struggle with the Burmese Government for self-determination that has lasted since the country won independence from Britain in 1947, more than 74,000 Karen now live in refugee camps in Thailand, pushed over the border by the decades of fighting.
In Bangkok, before travelling to Myanmar, the Browning party met with representatives of the refugee camps that have existed in a form of limbo on the Thai side of the border for almost 15 years. In the absence of much other official assistance, the Episcopal congregation of Christ Church, Bangkok, and other Churches and relief organisations in Thailand have served as conduits of aid to the camps.
Thai officials allow the camps to exist and provide some protection, but in order to maintain a relationship with the Myanmar Government have so far refused to allow the Karen official international status as refugees, said the Revd Bruce McNab, Christ Church's vicar.
As the fighting heats up and raids across the border harass the camps--burning down three of them at the onset of the monsoon last April-- the refugees have been gathered into massive camps, while even more refugees have been fleeing across the border, the camp representatives said.
Archbishop Mya Han, himself both Burmese and Karen, was serving as a mediator between the Government and the Karen insurgents when government troops destroyed the Karen headquarters in December, 1994, ending negotiations. As the Karen recently renewed their overtures for peace, they have again asked that Archbishop Mya Han serve as a member of the mediation team.
"We want peace. We want real peace," said a member of the camp delegation who met with the Brownings. But that peace, he said, must include political rights now denied both Karen and Burmese citizens.
Challenges of ministry
In Myanmar's Diocese of Toungoo, about six hours' drive north of Yangon, the Brownings and Grieves visited the Karen village of Tho Gyi, created when four villages near the Thai border were moved during earlier fighting. Villagers crowded into a bamboo and wood house church raised on stilts against the monsoon floods, and plied their visitors with pastries and coconut milk. Their priest, the Revd Thakler, told of their struggle to survive on unfamiliar land they do not know how to till.
"They travel each week back to their homes in the hills where they know how to grow food," said Bishop John Wilme of Toungoo.
As is typical of rural ministry in Myanmar, Thakler serves seven congregations spread over 135 miles, travelling between them by bicycle. Archbishop Mya Han and other bishops talked of walking days for episcopal visits to some congregations in remote areas.
The poverty of the general public in Myanmar, which has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, extends to clergy. Until the recent sale of a section of provincial property permitted increasing salaries to the equivalent of $30 a month, Myanmar's 250 clergy earned only $10 a month, Archbishop Mya Han said.
Priority is education
The visit of the Brownings' party to the town of Toungoo prompted an evening's presentation of Karen dance, music and acrobatics, and ceremonious greetings from musicians and children dressed in Karen native costumes at both the diocesan office and St Peter's Bible School. Founded in 1972, the school reflects the province's emphasis on education as it serves 12 high school students--11 boys and one girl--with a curriculum that includes efforts to run a self-sufficient farm, explained the principal, the Revd Philip Tin Ohn.
In Yangon, the Brownings visited the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf, begun by the English missionary Mary Chapman in 1920, and supported today by the province as one of only two schools in the country serving deaf children. The school draws together 280 elementary- and junior-high-aged students of 12 different ethnic groups and nationalities, who practice four different religions.
After receiving a blessing from Browning, the students waved goodbye with the sign-language sign for "I love you," returned by the Brownings and Archbishop Mya Han.
The Brownings also met with faculty and students at Holy Cross Theological College, a seminary in Yangon, where Presiding Bishop Browning encouraged the several women among the 21 students as he answered questions about the American Church's experience with female priests and bishops. Myanmar to date does not ordain women to the priesthood.
Opportunities for help
While Presiding Bishop Browning underscored his desire for a stronger relationship between the American Church and the Church in Myanmar, possible forms of assistance for Myanmar are still being explored.
Archbishop Mya Han suggested several ways American Episcopalians might help: contributions for Holy Cross Theological College, which needs 6,000 more books before it can be officially accredited; funding for artesian wells in outlying villages without adequate water supplies; assistance with a province-wide youth event scheduled for April; and training outside Myanmar for province members who can then return and train others.
At the very least, Presiding Bishop Browning noted, the connections forged by his visit to Myanmar can lead to the wider personal ties that draw together the body of Christ. The US Church would not forget that "we are one Church," he said, "and if any part of the Church suffers, the whole Church suffers."