In the Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus Christ commands us to go. We should heed the warning of Jeremiah and obey God: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” Today many do not want to go, concerned with fear or consumed with complacency. Nowhere is this more evident than in conflict zones such as those in Myanmar. Often the causes of conflict are the same, whether in regions, in churches, or in individuals. Missionaries must first believe what they claim to believe, resolve to submit to Christ, and then go on an adventure only God could orchestrate.
There are few places in Asia that are truly off the beaten path, where Westerners seldom visit, and where time is removed from modern life. These are places where tourism stops and reality exists in sharp juxtaposition. Here the façade of modernity and the trappings of global commercialism do not exist. Christians are called to go even there.
Sometimes alone and other times with Dr. Somboon Panyakom, my colleague from the Peacebuilding Department of Payap University in Chang Mai, Thailand, I traveled through the Conflict Zones of Myanmar. Between April, 2019 and March, 2020, we traveled through Myanmar conflict zones in Kachin State, Shan State, Karen State, and Rakhine State (also known as Arakan), either together or individually. We met and talked with people of various backgrounds and from different sides of the conflicts. This is what we learned.
The difference between regions (or divisions) and states within Myanmar is that regions consist of mostly ethnic Burma people, while states have large ethnic minorities for which they are named. Despite distinguishing historically “ethnic” states from majority Bamar or Burma regions, the states and regions of Myanmar are constitutionally equivalent.
Since Myanmar’s independence in 1948, there has been armed conflict between the central government and numerous ethnic and political factions in several states. The central government holds the major cities while most of the countryside in these particular states are held by various rebel groups. In October, 2015, the National Ceasefire Agreement was signed by many of these groups. Signs of conflict still remain in places referred to as the conflict zones of Myanmar.
I reflected on the nature of the conflicts and the effects they have on the faith of those impacted by them. I experienced the challenges associated with traveling in Myanmar during a ceasefire in its civil war and saw what this means for humanitarian efforts and ministry.
War can create neutral ground or be a source of unChristlike contention. I met soldiers from both sides of the conflicts, and found it easy to see the humanity in each. I avoided discussions of politics and internal issues better left to citizens; instead, I discussed the need for mutual respect for human life and for human rights. I shared the message that all humans face a sin issue and the need for deliverance found in the Savior. Imagine the implications of such conversations! Let me share them.
Since the 1940’s, laws prohibited the establishment of new churches; nevertheless, new churches have unofficially been established. Despite the context of war, the work of faith and the Church goes on.
I bring you this report of our observations for three reasons:
- To introduce our readers to places few Westerners have been;
- To show that Christians can go to those places, and;
- To offer biblical insights about such places and about our calling to them.
Usually I was blissfully unaware of danger and only reflected upon it later. I heard that bridges I had crossed a month before had been destroyed in fighting. Once however, I spent an evening with minority people in the jungle and troops arrived who spoke of recent engagement with the Burmese Army. That is the only time I felt I might be in imminent danger; yet, even then I never personally encountered armed conflict.
The twenty-three-hour bus ride from Yangon to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, was marked by extremes. The bus was comfortable; the scenery, breathtaking; accommodations, non-existent at times. Various Asian ethnicities were represented. The lack of any other Westerner was noticeable. A Buddhist monk boarded and sat at the front of the bus, chanting incessantly with teeth stained red by betel nut. The bus attendant rewarded the monk with alms, who briefly acknowledged it without interrupting his chant.
The Chinese-built Highway from Yangon to Mandalay was wide, straight and modern. During the last eight hours of the journey, however, the highway to Myitkyina was often just a rutted lane. When traffic came from the opposite direction, one of the vehicles had to pull off the road to all the others to pass. At one point the bus stopped on a lonely stretch to allow passengers to use restrooms—except there were no restrooms. With no fanfare or discussion, men stood on one side of the road and women squatted on the other. Sometimes small packs of toilet tissue were carried out of the bus and not returned.
As the bus entered Kachin State, Burmese Army soldiers and Army trucks were everywhere, yet people paid little attention to them. Sandbags and occasional small bunkers were noted at bridges which were held by the Burmese Army, and military facilities were noted outside the cities along the major road. Soldiers riding in the back of one truck were merely young teenagers.
The Kachin people speak Burmese and JaingPho. The country-side is predominantly held by a rebel faction known as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Many areas within Kachin State are off limits to foreigners. One day I spoke with a Burmese soldier on a bridge concerning which areas were restricted to foreigners, and he answered kindly but in halting English, telling me I had to turn back for I couldn’t cross this bridge north of the capital. When I thanked him, the Burmese soldier smiled as he smoked a cigarette, seemingly as amused in the rarity of seeing a foreigner as I was in chatting with a Burmese soldier. Meanwhile his AK-47 rifle leaned casually against the small checkpoint building on the bridge where he left it to stand up and talk with me.
One day I mentioned to some Kachin friends in Myitkyina that I had never seen any KIA rebels. I was told I probably had met a few, but since it is a citizen army, the KIA soldiers come and go in civilian attire and blend in with the local community. The Kachin people with whom I spoke quietly affirmed their appreciation for the KIA, though they were quick to add publicly that they did not promote or condone fighting. The day before I was to speak at a large Kachin Church, the Kachin pastor privately expressed concerns that many church members are weak in their faith and very bitter against the Burmese Army. The people need discipleship to recognize their own desperate need for mercy and grace in Christ, and to extend it also to the Burmese people who are equally in need, so that the Holy Spirit changes their hearts.
During one trip in a private vehicle, I stopped to eat at a roadside truck stop. There were no Westerners; then again, I had not seen a Westerner for days, for Kachin State is in the remote north. Outside a large truck idled, with many people sitting high atop of the cargo, presenting an alternative means of travel.
Driving habits were different, especially in the rural areas of Myanmar. Many motorbikes had no mirrors which explains the incessant use of vehicle horns to warn people when passing. In higher elevations, roads were often cut along steep hills and mountain passes overlooking sheer drops without guard rails.
Once while traveling in a personal vehicle, I spent the night with a Christian pastor in northern Sagien Division just south of Kachin State. The pastor told me he was forbidden by his community from celebrating a Christmas service. Minority status includes consequential restrictions.
When I later stopped at the border of Kachin State, my passport was checked and photocopied. Seeing my smart phone, an immigration officer demanded it and returned it after deleting a few photos I had taken of the sandbagged post. Then, as I returned to the personal vehicle, the officer casually photographed me and the pickup truck I got back into.
There are many army posts along the highway with barbed-wire fences and bunkers. Posts with sandbags and bunkers are typically located adjacent to bridges.
The faces of those in the hinterland are weathered. Rough. Piercing. Young and old, male and female, they are handsome and beautiful, but without glamor.
Shan State is the largest of the states within Myanmar. The people living there speak Burmese and Shan. I was never aware of danger; yet, just weeks after passing through northern Shan State to Lashio and back, the rail and road bridges I had traveled were destroyed in fighting. The US Embassy then issued a warning that the only safe travel out of Lashio was by air.
It is rare to observe any other Westerners in these states. I saw none during my visits in the cities of Lashio (Shan State) and Myitkyina (Kachin State).
Shan and Kachin States are known for producing opium and methamphetamine for world markets, and revenue from these drugs are used to finance warring factions.
These states are experiencing a drug and HIV epidemic. Indigenous leaders I met in Kachin State, including the governor and the advocate general, openly asked for international assistance in addressing these crises.
Departing Thailand on one trip, I was propelled in a long, narrow boat containing three people through the Salween River dividing Thailand from Karen/Kayin State, Myanmar. Along the journey, I passed a number of rustic outposts of the Burmese Army, consisting of a collection of bamboo fencing and thatched huts with the Burmese flag flying high atop wooden poles. These outposts were typically on high ground overlooking the river. On the opposite shore, I occasionally saw houses and a simple Thai government or military post. The jungle on both sides was quiet and serene as the water flowed by.
Upon reaching my destination on the shore of Karen State in Myanmar, there was only a trail leading up from the river. I walked along a simple path into the jungle to a small Christian college to witness a graduation ceremony. Students in the “independent” Karen State of Kawthoolei were completing their bachelor degrees in various majors, including Information Technology–this in a jungle that lacked internet access. The community consists of a number of single story-buildings and perhaps one or two hundred people. It was only accessible by small boat. Students, family members and friends gathered to celebrate commencement. A former General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) was present. A senior officer of the Karen National Army (KNA) arrived with an escort of several KNA soldiers, yet their presence was neither a distraction nor an imposition. That one of the soldiers occasionally spoke on a radio led me to speculate that more soldiers were in the surrounding jungle perimeter.
A KNA soldier mentioned that life was quieter with the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) of 2015. However, he told me that just two weeks prior, the Burmese Army violated it by crossing into a prohibited area, leading to a firefight. He showed me photos on his smart phone of casualties, but said this incident was never broadcast on national or international news due to lack of internet. Local people from the college interjected that the shooting engagement was close enough they could hear the gunfire. The Burmese Army unit withdrew, but then fired long-range artillery, causing the evacuation of a small Karen village later that day.
Speaking with KNU officials, they expressed the desire to see Myanmar reemerge under federalism in which national affairs were addressed in Naypyidaw, the capital, while internal affairs are delegated to democratically elected representatives in each state. For this to be successful, they said, it must be based upon mutual respect. They resist the prohibition of teaching the Karen language to school children through high school. The people with whom I spoke said they only want independence if the Karen People continue to be denied individual rights they see as integral to life and community.
It is unfortunate that I didn’t have an opportunity on this occasion to speak with Burmese leaders in the area and hear their side of the issue. Earlier on a previous trip to Myanmar, while at the airport in Yangon, I briefly met in passing and spoke with a Burmese government official who expressed that the government of Myanmar really wants to see peace, but said “it is complicated” because there are so many issues of security and federalization that must be considered amid genuine security dilemmas impacting the central government.
Driving up a rugged dirt road which serves as the highway, I witnessed rice drying on tarps along the road and sacks of rice were transported by motor bike, cart and truck. Bamboo was also stacked along the road and carried by motorbikes and carts as well as trucks. I saw massive trucks, some loaded with bamboo and others with onions, transporting the bamboo perhaps to a port at the Bay of Bengal for export. Burmese Immigration checkpoints were at the Rakhine State border and at various locations within the state. The officials at these checkpoints recorded passports and regulated movement.
In northern Rakhine State where most of the conflict exists, there is no internet access, making communication to and from the outside world more difficult.
The Arakhan Army (AA) is a Buddhist army in Rakhine State which seeks independence in an armed conflict with the Burmese Army. The AA has wide support. They have a reputation for abusing drugs.
Rohingya are Muslim people in Rakhine State but are a separate issue from the Buddhist AA. The United Nations (UN) charges that the Rohingya people have suffered genocide by the hands of the Burmese Army, leading to 900,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing into Bangladesh over the past 8 years. Insurgents known as, The Arakhan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), are active here. The ARSA is also known by its former name Harakah al-Yaqin, which means Faith Movement. ARSA is financed by Muslim countries, but it is not clear how much support ARSA has from the Rohingya themselves or how effective they have been against the Burmese Army.
I was surprised by the juxtaposition of tourism along the Bay of Bengal in Rakhine State. Spectacular beaches are being developed, even as conflict and suffering exists. There is an eerie acceptance that the conflict will not end. Daily life continues amid tragic reality.
Many homes are without electricity, or have a small solar panel. Most highways are unpaved, narrow, winding, and rutted, and even those that are paved are challenging to navigate. The average speed on highways in conflict zones is about 30 kilometers per hour. Yet significant road construction is taking place, presumably funded by Chinese “Belt and Silk Road” initiatives. There were many tolls even though the roads are a mess. Perhaps this offers hope for the future.
COMPARING AND CONTRASTING PEOPLE GROUPS AND STATES
Let’s compare and contrast these conflict zones.
Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, and Karen States consist of major people groups at war with the Burmese Army due to real and perceived rights violations, and each has built rebel or independence armies. The Burmese Army tends to hold the main cities and infrastructure like bridges, while rebels hold the vast countryside. Indigenous people from these four states have fear and resentment of the Burmese Army. Atrocities committed by the Burmese Army have been documented by the United Nations, by indigenous people groups, and by outsiders. “A policy of systematic violence against certain minorities yields a harvest of destroyed villages, rape, uprooted populations, and international condemnation (Mandryk, 2010, p. 610). The people with whom I spoke in each of these states see the resistance armies as their defenders and expressed disappointment with Myanmar’s Prime Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet I did meet people in Yangon and throughout Burma proper who expressed support for the Prime Minister as she seeks to implement peace while strengthening federalism within Myanmar.
Yet these four states differ in several significant ways. A full 80% of the population of Kachin State identifies as Christian. Karen State is comprised of about 35% of the population which identifies as Christian. Shan State, the largest state in Myanmar, in contrast, has only 1% of the population that identifies as Christian. Rakhine State has a significant Muslim population which has been subjected to horrendous genocide, with many people fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. While each state has natural resources, Kachin State has jade mines that are an interest to all conflicting parties.
HUMANITY AT STAKE
The Burmese government entered into a ceasefire agreement with many of the indigenous groups. The agreement has existed since 2015, although reports of violations by the Burmese army abound.
I talked with Karen, Shan, and Kachin people on various occasions about their identity and about the healing process. How do they cope with living with a sense of constant danger? How do they cope with being alienated in their own country?
For example, speaking with refugees at Mae La camp along the Burmese border at Mae Sot, Thailand in 2016, I listened as they spoke amid tears, recounting how they “witnessed fighting, burning of homes, rapes, and summary executions.” This is not a time to share cliché’s. It is important to neither diminish trauma experiences nor hurry the steps in the grieving process, for it is essential to healing. God calls His people to suffer with those who suffer. Part of the healing process is reconciling the disparity between the way things ought to be with the injustice they experienced. When asked, these Christian refugees readily acknowledged the universal truth that all people have at some point hurt others, with it only being a matter of degree. “They also readily acknowledged that our only hope for forgiveness and redemption is by the grace and mercy offered through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.” These particular people admitted that though they had not committed the same sins they had witnessed, they still also needed God’s unmerited mercy and grace for their own sins. Forgiveness is neither quick nor a one-time event, but takes time. The refusal to forgive is in fact a form of unbelief and bondage (Langteau, Jun, Gossett, & Samora, 2019, p. 26-27).
There are biblical and spiritual implications on the indigenous people as they try to cope with the social/economic/security impact of conflict while addressing bitterness and forgiveness issues among their members. The local churches in the conflict zones have asked for help addressing bitterness among the people, and helping them recognize from God’s word the need for each person to receive grace and mercy, and thus also to promote forgiveness of others rather than resentment. These people have endured the unendurable, and there are no easy answers even while applying biblical truth.
In 2019 the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) humanitarian group published an article entitled, Rape as a Weapon of War and the Women Who Are Resisting. The FBR reported on the widespread use of violence and rape against indigenous people in Myanmar as a means to break the spirit of ethnic groups, impregnate minority people with mixed babies for the goal of “Burmanization” of Myanmar into an ethnically and culturally homogenized nation, and simultaneously divide local people by cultivating a perceived stigma against the rape victims (Free Burma Rangers, 2019, p. 4).
Conflict isn’t limited to the Burmese Army. There are four different factions within Karen State, and twenty within Shan State. While they generally do not fight each other, there is a lack of unity. The clear lack of unity among the opposition within the conflict zones contributes to the failure of a practical solution.
Many conscripts within the Burmese Army probably likewise struggle with the issues of war and the suffering they too have experienced.
These are real issues, but there are deep underlying issues too that transcend the here and now. Ultimately it is a sin issue that produces various acts of war.
Christ warned that there is no profit in gaining the world and losing one’s own soul. Human sin nature is expressed in all parties, to varying degrees, as we consider the various sides in conflict. Scripture indicates that pride and worldliness causes conflict. The Bible declares that war is the result of greed for power and wealth, and that the answer is to submit to Christ, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously?’ But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:1-10).
The churches in the conflict zones, particularly in Kachin State, have asked for help addressing bitterness among the people, and helping them recognize from God’s word the need for each person to receive grace and mercy. Forgiveness must replace resentment, and only a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit can accomplish that.
A CALL TO GO: Not our will, but God’s
A worldview is the framework by which a person views reality and make sense of life and the world. A biblical worldview is based on the final authority of the Bible as the Word of God. When one believes the Bible is entirely true, then one allows the Bible to be the foundation for everything one says and does. A biblical worldview acknowledges that truth exists and is knowable; that God created all people in His image, that people are eternal, valuable and redeemable from sin through Christ; and that every social or political issue is really a spiritual issue that is manifested in daily life. God is the supreme reality, and all responses to issues are then based in and project from spiritual beliefs that emanate from the truth of God’s word (Erickson, 2007, p. 18-19, & 57-58). If we love the Lord and love people who are created in His image, we must demonstrate it by more than mere words but in truth and action, per 1 John 3:18.
Until people see their identity and that of other people in Christ, and recognize their own desperate need for grace and mercy, it is difficult to step out of comfort zones and be willing to go to and serve in conflict zones. A biblical worldview is a unified theory that could be summed up in Jesus Christ based on Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Many people devote their lives to personal security, or pursuits and causes they think are hugely important, only to die in the realization that they missed the very purpose of life. Francis Chan wisely surmised, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter” (Chan, 2008, p. 92). We have more important questions to ask and more important issues to address, as Jesus Christ posed, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
The guiding principle of this article was the application of a biblical worldview to life as we implement the Great Commission, based on Matthew 28:19-20. The three-fold purpose of this article was to:
- report our actual observations in conflict zones where few people have been;
- reveal that Christians can go and should go into these conflict zones, and;
- offer biblical insight and application based on our observations.
It is hoped this report challenges pre-conceived notions about Burma and the Churches within Myanmar. And perhaps about ourselves, too.
Rather than a simple assessment, the situation is complex but can and should be viewed through the lens of Scripture as the final authority. Ultimately we heed the words of Christ to go in response to the Great Commission. Yet it is complex because different locations in Myanmar have different needs. In Kachin State where 80% of the population claim to be Christian and Jade mines produced wealth, people told us they did not need money but they needed Bibles and welcomed discipleship and teaching. In Shan State, where less than 1% are Christian, many people have never even heard the name of Jesus and the need for evangelism is urgent. In Karen State where about 35% of the population is Christian, a number of people told us they believe they are effective at evangelism and discipleship, and don’t need missionaries as much as they need encouragement and support in the face of challenges.
Above all, let each of us believe and live what we claim to believe while at home, before we go to the foreign mission field. In the Great Commission, the Lord commands us to go. The Lord doesn’t tell us to be reckless or careless about safety, but likewise He also does not tell us to go only if it appears safe based on what news media reports indicate. After addressing our own fear and complacency then let us go, without fear and without hesitation, in obedience to Christ and the Great Commission. Because the war that rages in the conflict zones of Myanmar also rage in our own hearts.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” -Romans 10:14-15
Chan, F. (2008). Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a relentless God. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
Erickson, M. (2007). Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
Free Burma Rangers. (2019). Rape as a Weapon of War and the Women who are Resisting. https://www.freeburmarangers.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Rape-as-a-Weapon-of-War.pdf.
Kagan, D., (2004). The Peloponnesian War. London, UK: Penguin Random House Books.
Langteau, J., Jun, H., Gossett, K., & Samora, D. (2019). Peace missions to Karen and Shan migrants from Myanmar in Southeast Asia. International Journal of Frontier Missiology (IJFM), 36(1), 19-29. doi: https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/36_1_PDFs/IJFM_36_1-Langteau_et_al.pdf.
Moreau, S. (2004). Introduction to world missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
James D. Langteau
Dr. James D. Langteau is a faculty member of the Peacebuilding Department at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and is a consultant with SIL International. He develops teams and leads them weekly into migrant and refugee neighborhoods. Dr. Langteau is critical incidence/stress management certified, and previously founded and served as the first executive director of the Marinette-Menominee Jail Outreach, Inc. He earned a master degree in discipleship ministries from Liberty Theological Seminary and he earned a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Liberty University Graduate School of Education.
Dr. Somboon Panyakom is a faculty member of Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand where he serves as a lecturer in the Peacebuilding Department. Dr. Somboon Panyakom is of Karen ethnicity, and has extensive first-hand knowledge of challenges within the conflict zones of Myanmar. In addition he taught in business and sustainable development, and is a board member of the Global Karen Baptist Fellowship. Dr. Somboon Panyakom also completed two terms as Dean of Payap University International College, and previously served 12 years as the Country Director for Compassion International in Thailand.