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The Brave and the Faithful

By Caroline Park

            Buddhist country Myanmar, the land of gold-gilded stupas glittering in the sun where devout believers pray within the hazy smoke of the freshly lit incense sticks.  Visiting the numerous pagodas in Yangon, I was able to witness firsthand, the devotion the Burmese people had for their religion.  Having learned that 90% of the Burmese are Buddhist and Christians constitute a minor sliver of 6%, Burma was the last place I ever expected to encounter Christians.  But somehow during my short stay in Burma, I ran into a small group of Burmese Christians who formed a strong community against their oppressive government.

            In the town of Dalla, my friends and I wandered the little town streets and ended up in the courtyard of a little church named Tamil Methodist Church.  A man came out of the church building and approached us introducing himself as Alex.  Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked him about the church.  How did a Methodist Tamil church end up here in a remote corner of a Buddhist country?  He smiled and answered that he was a third generation Tamil Indian from the city of Chennai.  His grandfather, along with many other Indians, had followed the British Army as farmers and laborers to Myanmar.  Still another question baffled me.  How did his ancestors from India become Christians?  Alex smiled again and told me about a man named Adonriam Judson, a Baptist missionary from the United States who came to Burma in the early 19th century.

            Alex’s ancestors, the Tamil Indians, converted from Hinduism to Christianity in Burma and laid the foundation for the very church we had stumbled upon.  Although there was persecution by the government, Burmese Christians shared their faith through door to door evangelism.  Printing the Bible was illegal in Burma so the Burmese Bible was printed in Thailand and the U.S. and was smuggled in to the country.  Religious get-togethers in homes were strictly forbidden and only registered churches were allowed to hold services.  However, getting a church permit was no easy task in Myanmar’s corrupt bureaucracy. 

            The conversation was slowly shifting from religion to politics and I felt a little nervous but Alex did not seem the least uneasy.  He began to openly criticize the government’s corruption and told us since an average official’s monthly salary was about three to four American dollars, they derived wealth by wringing out money here and there from the citizens.  The Methodist Tamil Church had to dish out $200 in order to register as an official church.  He also told us that even though he is a third generation Indian and is an ICC ID card holder (which I presume means he’s legally a Burmese citizen), he faces discrimination and is not allowed to work a government job, even as a teacher.  He asserted aloud that the government is untrustworthy and undependable. 

            I asked him if he wasn’t afraid that somebody would hear him.  He told me that if somebody had heard him and reported him to the police, he could be taken away that very night.  But he wanted us to hear what he had to say about the truth.  The truth has to get out, he declared.  And as we were foreigners, it was the best way to get the truth about the government known to the outside world.  In her essay about the fear and oppression of the Burmese “Darker than Midnight,” Monique Skidmore’s comment that the “Burmese people strive not to express fear […] suppressing or denying fear is the most common survival strategy” seemed to ring true in Alex.  I wasn’t sure if he was suppressing fear but he definitely was defying the hold of fear that the government was trying to project upon its people.

            I didn’t say it out loud but inside I applauded this brave individual.  Alex was the closest person I came across in Burma who openly declared the tyranny of their government.  He wasn’t afraid to say what he believed in.  Burma’s freedom will need more people like him.

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