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Missionary Spotlight-Myanmar – land of pagodas

February 2004 | by Thang Bwee

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is the largest country in mainland South East Asia. Its population is a union comprising many different nationalities, with fifty minority people groups speaking 128 different languages and dialects.

 

Buddhism

 

The country is covered with Buddhist pagodas. They are on every mountain and hill, near towns and villages – wherever pious Buddhists built them. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has actively encouraged their construction in every region during the last decade.

The British annexed Burma in 1886 during the reign of its last monarch – King Thibaw – who was taken to Calcutta, where he died in 1916. Burma gained its independence from Britain in January 1948. There then followed internal political conflict which culminated in military rule in 1962.

A brief, unsuccessful experiment in socialism was followed by another military takeover in 1988 in the wake of anti-government riots. Today, Burma is still ruled by a military government.

Missionaries

 

Church history in Burma begins with Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries arriving in 1559. Two Roman Catholic churches were already established in Yangon when Protestant (English Baptist) missionaries began their work in 1807.

The Baptists included James Chater and Richard Mardon. Later, Felix Carey, the elder son of William Carey, joined them. After they departed for Sri Lanka and India, however, there was little fruit.

But then God led the American Baptist Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann to Burma. They arrived in Rangoon on 13 July 1813. By 1816, Judson was translating the Bible into Burmese – his version is still in use.

Through the dedicated work of Judson and other missionaries, the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout Burma, particularly among minority tribal people groups, such as the Karen, Kachin and Chin.

Pressures

 

In 1966 all expatriate missionaries were expelled and today are greatly restricted in working in Myanmar. Christian work since 1966 has, of necessity, been mainly undertaken by indigenous Christians and by those from other Asian countries working here as ‘tentmakers’.

While not persecuting Christians as severely as some countries, the Myanmar state does restrict the activities of churches and generally makes life difficult for Christians.

Christians cannot buy or construct buildings for worship. Some congregations have been forbidden to meet together; some Bible schools have had to close. In certain localities there have been forcible conversions to Buddhism.

All the main Christian denominations in Myanmar have embraced liberalism. The Myanmar Institute of Theology is one of the best-known liberal Bible Schools in South East Asia.

Most evangelical churches in Myanmar are grouped together as the Myanmar Evangelical Churches Fellowship (MECF). But these have been strongly impacted by the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

Weakness

 

Sadly, the vast majority of evangelical churches and Christians in Myanmar are ignorant of the doctrines of grace. There is still a treasure-house of biblical truth waiting to be discovered in this land.

There are virtually no theological or doctrinal books in the various indigenous languages. The churches are extremely weak in their grasp of the truths of the Word of God. This weakness is reflected in their worship, conduct, government, evangelism and teaching.

There are booklets available with basic Christian teaching, and gospel tracts, but Burmese Bibles are relatively expensive. It is difficult to find even a single Reformed book in Christian bookstores.

Hopeful signs

 

Modern Reformed mission work in Myanmar is only just beginning. A few church leaders have begun to teach the doctrines of grace, and a few Reformed churches and Bible schools were started during the 1990s.

Our own Evangelical Reformed Church (ERC) began in 1992 in Yangon. I am a Korean missionary who graduated from a Calvinistic seminary in Seoul. The ERC’s doctrine is based on theWestminster Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism.

The ERC started a Reformed Bible Institute (RBI) in 2000 to teach the Reformed faith to the next generation. It still needs much help in developing its ministry.

We are thankful to the Banner of Truth Trust, which has provided literature for teaching the RBI’s students; we have also translated a few Reformed booklets.

Take to heart

 

I conclude by asking churches everywhere to take Myanmar to their own heart in its desperate need of the biblical gospel.

Please pray for the Lord to open a new page in the history of Reformed missions in Myanmar, for his own glory.

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