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Myanmar’s crisis is deepening

by
21 January 2022

Why is a nation with a rich and nuanced history in such turmoil, asks Chris Mabey

Alamy

Protesters in Parliament Square, London, in November, call for the release of imprisoned political leaders in Myanmar

Protesters in Parliament Square, London, in November, call for the release of imprisoned political leaders in Myanmar

IT SEEMED that Myanmar was inching toward a more democratic regime. In the November 2020 elections, there was yet another landslide vote for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party (News, 20 November 2020). But the military junta that rules Myanmar was unable to contemplate more power-sharing. Referring to election fraud on 1 February last year, it declared a year-long state of emergency (News, 12 February 2021). The patience of the normally peace-loving people snapped, and fury was unleashed.

Soldiers gunned down unarmed students, teachers, and even medical workers. More than 1300 civilians have been killed by security forces, among them two journalists and two Save the Children aid workers (News, 31 December). A further 8000 have been detained or imprisoned.

To compound the misery, the latest wave of Covid has run rampant through the country. Few are vaccinated. Almost one third of public hospitals have been closed. Relatives, friends, and health workers risk being shot or detained as they queue to try to get oxygen cylinders to the sick under curfew.

Why is this secretive nation in such turmoil, and what can we do to help our brothers and sisters in Myanmar?

 

AS A British teenager, I met a beautiful Burmese girl, April, on the school bus. She and her family self-exiled in 1964, soon after Ne Win’s military coup, to start a new life in England. I was blown away by the affections of April, and by the warm hospitality of her parents.

But this misty-eyed romanticism about Burma was largely untested until April and I made an extended visit in 1995-96, together with our four teenage daughters. For April, not much had changed since her family’s hurried departure. For me, it was an arresting reality check.

How did this country, with such a regal past, swathed in natural beauty and populated by a people of unmistakable serenity, slide into repression and obscurity? How could the upbeat memories of April’s parents be reconciled with Myanmar’s current malaise? I started to record the oral history and reminiscences of April’s Burmese family, who were eyewitnesses to momentous events in mid-20th-century Burma.

Then, between 2010 and 2018, April and I made seven successive visits to help teach at a small Bible college on the outskirts of Yangon, run by a couple from the Chin ethnic group. We took the opportunity to travel widely and talk to a range of young people. I began to unpeel the nation’s history, the mix of Buddhist faith and spirit worship, the warring interests of ethnic peoples, the decimated education system, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the hidden human-rights abuses labelled by Amnesty International as among the worst in the world.

What emerged was a far more nuanced picture of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military in 1997) than the media stereotype. We discovered that there was a close tie between ethnic identity and religion. Theravada Buddhism has infused pacifism and compassion into the Burmese mind-set for centuries, and about 90 per cent of the population are Buddhists. Yet, in stark contrast, there is an influential group of nationalistic Buddhists in government who issue hate speech and death threats against Christians and Muslims. Violations of freedom of belief have always been part of the story for Burmese Christians, who are prominent among the Chin, Karen, and Kachin people groups.

 

THE UK has taken unilateral action in response to the coup. This includes imposing sanctions on senior military figures, as well as on key commercial and economic interests. We can press our leaders to go further. Key individuals within the junta have ordered or been complicit in crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. For these, they need to be brought to account.

Currently, the people of Myanmar are subject to discriminatory laws that restrict freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of peaceful assembly. I have written to my MP to urge him to do all he can to push for reforms. In addition, the Myanmar education system and curriculum need to be overhauled. A Burmese doctor in neuro-science tells me: “There are only four clinical psychologists at doctorate level in Yangon. Sixty years of dictatorship and trauma, and that’s all there are. I aim to go back and be the fifth.”

Her studies in the United States were possible thanks only to a scholarship from the London-based charity Prospect Burma. Over 30 years, it has helped 2400 alumni in this way. Students are awarded scholarships to undertake tertiary education outside Myanmar. Once qualified, they return to influence their professional fields of law, health, education, human rights, media, and technology. This builds pressure from the bottom up, as people get a taste for more egalitarian values. “The junta have taken our country, but no one can take my education from me,” one nurse who is working tirelessly in the Chin state says.

Of course, all this depends on the cessation of violence and on constructive dialogue. In recent months, the political crisis has deepened. Now, many of the indigenous leaders who previously had political influence have been forced into hiding in the Karen hills and across the borders of India and Thailand. But, ever resolute, the National Unity Government, formed of politicians ousted by the military coup in February, is preparing itself for the day when regime change comes.

Finally, matters shift in the heavenly realms when people pray. My reading of the scriptures tells me that God not only sees and cares about oppressed peoples, but also — in his time — will call evildoers to account and sweep them aside.


Chris Mabey is a chartered psychologist and Emeritus Professor at Middlesex University Business School. His latest book,
Whispers of Hope: A family memoir of Myanmar, is published by Penguin Random House at £29.99 (Church Times Bookshop £26.99); 9-7898-1-495425-9. chrismabey.co.uk

Listen to an interview with Chris Mabey on the Church Times Podcast

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