The sun is coming up after a night movement from the mountains down to the plains of Burma. It is here that the Burma Army has feudal rule with tight control over people’s lives and camps surrounding the forced relocation sites. Up in the mountains the Burma army shoots to kill, but there is room to get away and the resistance is strong enough to slow and sometimes stop Burma Army attacks. Two days ago in the mountains, we could hear the Burma Army shelling towards Karen villages as they advanced to supply their camps. In Kachin state our team is helping over 40,000 IDPs displaced in ongoing attacks.
Down in the plains the Burma Army has almost complete control. But, it is impossible to fully control people who have the conviction that all people are equal in the sight of God and that this is their home. . Here in Burma we still face giants, but we do not face them alone.
We moved like mice in between the Burma Army camps and patrols to meet the people in the relocation sites. We met them in the bushes and trees that separated the miles and miles of rice fields. “The church is the greatest source of unity here”, the local underground resistance leader told us. “Oppression, imprisonment and death has caused fear to grow in us and between us, breaking down our trust and unity.” As we prayed about our meetings with the people here, our medic, Eliya, shared these words from Psalm 100: “Make a joyful shout to the Lord all you lands, serve the Lord with gladness, come before His presence with singing, know that the Lord, He is God, it is He who has made us and not we ourselves, we are His people and the sheep of His pasture, enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise, be thankful to Him and bless His name, for the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting and His truth endures to all generations.”
We did not make ourselves, God made us and we are His and we also belong to each other. We can live with joy and boldly, knowing we are God’s children. From this relationship with God and each other, come the convictions that we live and act on.
We met Karen Christians, Burmese Buddhists and Karen Buddhists and felt close to all. Into our little hide site came a man we met on the last mission to the plains, the father of one of our team members and the leader of the underground here. He was beaming and under his thin windbreaker showed us the FBR t-shirt he dared to wear. He smiled proudly and then grabbed my arms and we began to wrestle like we did when we met last year. He was testing my strength, courage and sense of humor, and to see if we were still brothers. I call him “Big bear” as he is a very stout and strong man, built like a Mongolian warrior, with a bull neck, broad chest, powerful arms, and tree stump like legs. His smile is clear and the love of life shines through him.
Later that night we met other church leaders and for the next four days and nights moved and met many leaders from different relocation sites. We prayed together and shared experiences and listened to their thoughts, needs and convictions. An elder told us, “I had to watch every step to come here. No matter what is said about changes, the Burma Army can still kill you anytime. We are glad you came and we pray for the end of restrictions we live under.” Another man from this village told us of two farmers who were shot by Burma troops two months ago, one a father of four, killed, and another one wounded.
One pastor told us, “We have been praying for the leaders to change and thank God we do see some changes. But still there is oppression, so it seems the change is only of the mind. We need a change of heart too. We pray now that God will grab Senior General Than Shwey’s heart! Last week the Burma army told us, ‘Now there is change in Burma, if you contact the Karen National Union (Karen pro-democracy resistance), you will be severely punished’.” Another church leader said, “We have been forced to move three times. The Burma army just told some of us that we could go back home, but when we asked about proof in writing, there was none. Is it a trap? Going back to our original homes can be true vision if we pray. I know God’s plans are above ours, and dreams like this can come true.”
A woman’s group leader told us, “We need to be free. We want unity and we also need help with our schools, churches and Early Child Care Development programs.”
One man had just been released from prison after serving 5 years after being accused of helping the KNU. “I was beaten badly when I was arrested and then taken to Toungoo prison. There I was fed rice and salt water. I was watched all the time and only allowed to pray in Burmese and not in my Karen language. I spent much time in solitary. I knew the Karen lady medic who was captured and saw her in prison too.”
Another man in his 60’s told us, “Last year, I was captured by the Burma army on the trail and had four of my teeth knocked out by the soldiers. I was beaten with sticks and clubbed with a rifle to my entire body. After six days of torture my friends were able to pay 300,000 kyats to the army and I was released.”
A pastor told us, “Things have gotten a little better and we are stopped at check points less than before. After 60 years of war, hearts need to change. My message to Aug San Suu Kyi is, ‘Please remember the ethnic people of Burma.’ All of us should be united, and for me the church is the central pillar of unity. We want all churches to be free. We do not want to have to apply for permission as we do now. Now we have to apply for permission to hold special church events, for building projects, and for any traveling we want to do. I do want to thank you all for the gifts you gave us last time and for the bibles and hymnals. We used the gift to make a wooden library to safely store all of our bibles, hymnals and books. Now we need more bibles and hymnals. Thank you so much and may God bless all of you.”
We committed to helping each community and church as much as we could and are grateful for the help of Partners and others. As we talked, I told them about the German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer stood for the Jews and other oppressed people in WWII. Bonheoffer gave up his life to stand against Hitler’s Nazi oppression. Bonheoffer died in a concentration camp just before the war ended and freedom came. Even the end of WWII did not mean freedom for all. For many in Eastern Europe, China and other places, oppression under another name continued.
Last year the former Czech President Vaclav Havel died. He was one of many who stood for freedom until Eastern Europe too was free. He was a friend of FBR and here in Burma we paid tribute to him with a memorial service, prayer and song. Here in Burma, like Havel and Bonheoffer, we are directed by the conviction that God wants us to stand with and help His people be free.
God’s power of love brings change in each of us and helps us to move forward together to be part of His freedom, mercy and grace everywhere.
Thank you and God bless you,
Dave, family and FBR teams.
Karen State, Burma.