Myanmar: A Land of Contrasts

by Ed Peters

In a world of instant news, it is all too easy to be jaded by stories of international political unrest and natural calamities. But when news of the February 1, military coup in Myanmar was broadcasted, my ears perked up and my heart sank. For me, this news is personal.

My encounter with this troubled nation goes back twelve years when I was introduced to a seminary student from Myanmar. He was a young man who taught himself to read and write our language by reading an English Bible. (His emails still sound a bit like a New Testament epistle!) I was quickly impressed by his energy and love for God. Soon we began talking about the possibility of one day visiting his beloved country. In January 2017, this dream became a reality.

Credit: Ed Peters

Internationally, Myanmar is known for its military rulers, repressive human rights record, and the recent genocide against Rohingya Muslims. But there is much more to this nation than international headlines reveal.

Travelling in the month of January involved boarding my Canadian flight in -30C temperatures. But when I stepped out of the Yangon airport, it was nearly +30C. The difference of climate was the first of many contrasts I was to experience in this intriguing land.

In the early 20th century, Myanmar was part of the British Empire and known to the outside world as Burma. Although the nation proudly gained its independence in 1948, the influence of their British overlords is still widely seen. The city of Yangon, the most populous city, is home to the largest collection of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. Walking in the shadow of these elegant, pastel-coloured buildings gives one the sense of walking in Europe.

But the new Burmese rulers acted quickly to distance themselves from their colonial past. In 1989, the country was renamed to Myanmar. Its principal city, Rangoon, was also renamed Yangon. So eager were the Burmese authorities to distance themselves from all things British, that they declared all cars must drive on the right side of the road instead of the left. Yet to this day, most cars in Myanmar are right hand drive vehicles. Imagine if you can, pulling out to pass the car in front of you. Only the driver must pull all the way into the oncoming lane to see if there is any traffic coming your way! Suffice it to say that being taxied down the busy streets of Yangon is itself a faith-building experience.

Another curious contrast of this nation is the manner of its military rulers versus the general population. My experience of the Burmese people is that they are overwhelmingly peaceful and gracious. Although there are strong undercurrents of discontent toward their military rulers, this dissatisfaction rarely boils over in violent protests. Sadly, this peaceful disposition is not shared by the military rulers who have a long history of brutal totalitarian rule.

While in Myanmar, I had the opportunity to visit Naypyidaw—the capital city. Naypyidaw is unique among the cities of Myanmar because it is an entirely planned city. Construction of the capital began in 2002 and was completed ten years later. Although it is said the city has a population of close to a million, it felt like a ghost town. My friend drove us toward the Parliament buildings—the heart of the city. There were eight lanes in each direction, yet the road was nearly empty. In contrast to the densely populated and chaotic city streets of Yangon, the capital felt eerily deserted.

Officially I was told that there is freedom of religion in Myanmar. But the closer you come to the capital city—the seat of military power—the less freedom you have. A local pastor explained that the congregation meeting in his home is under constant threat of being shut down by authorities. If this happened, he would lose his home, be forced to move, and possibly face imprisonment. Then he added (tongue-in-cheek I think), “Wouldn’t it be funny if they arrested you.” I did not find that prospect very amusing! Yet, when I gathered with these local believers, they sang unhindered and loud with windows wide open. I was deeply moved by their courage.

Credit: Ed Peters

Another fascinating contrast I experienced in Myanmar was between the opulent traditional golden temples of Buddha, and the young church.

While in Myanmar, I visited two of the largest Buddhist temples in the country. Situated on top of a mount, worshippers and tourist alike must climb many marble steps to reach the golden dome of the temple. The architectural wonder of these structures was inspiring to behold. Yet I felt deeply disturbed by the extravagant wealth displayed in one of the world’s poorest countries. Within the temple area itself, there are a multitude of smaller shrines where worshippers could burn incense and offer prayers. One of the extravagant shrines was dedicated to a Buddha’s Tooth Relic.

In contrast, the church I was exposed to was young, poor, and brimming with life. My purpose in travelling to Myanmar was to teach a short module at a newly established Bible college. This training centre was founded by my friend as a way of sending evangelists and church-planters throughout the country. The students I encountered were eager to learn. Part of their training involved mission trips into the various provinces of Myanmar. Their energy was infectious, as was their singing. Based on my experience, Burmese people, love music!

My last Sunday in Myanmar, I joined a Yangon house church where many of the students attend. After a long time of joyful and enthusiastic singing, there was opportunity for testimonies. Many stood up to share a story or a song with the congregation. While I did not understand the words that were spoken, my heart was moved by the smiles, tears, and love shared within this community. When I think of the zeal and love of this young congregation, my heart feels encouraged and I am filled with hope for this troubled nation.

Ed Peters

When you hear the reports of yet another military coup transpiring in the land of Myanmar, please know that there is more to this country than what is on the news. Like yeast mixed into a batch of dough, the Kingdom of God is quietly and powerfully bringing transformation. Let us join our brothers and sisters in Myanmar in praying for this country. Pray for courage and wisdom as God’s people follow Christ in obedience.

Ed Peters serves as pastor at Island Gospel Fellowship in Burns Lake, BC. 

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