A global churches' team representing the World Council of Churches visited Burma this month, as part of the council’s commitment to accompanying churches in conflict situations.
The 4 to 9 August 2011 visit was a follow-up to a WCC Living Letters team visit to the country, officially known as Myanmar, in late 2010.
The five participants in the international ecumenical solidarity team included WCC Central Committee members, Asian church representatives from neighbouring countries and WCC staff.
The members of the solidarity team were given opportunities to understand the social and economic realities of the people under the new political dispensation in the country.
Prior to the visit to Myanmar, the members of the delegation visited a refugee camp in Thailand populated by hundreds of Myanmar citizens who had to flee from conflict zones in Myanmar and who crossed the border to Thailand where they are now waiting for grants of asylum in other countries.
The Rev Rothangliani Chhangte, a member of the WCC Central Committee representing the American Baptist Churches (ABC) in the USA observed that the international community needs to be more conscious of the problems in Myanmar, especially the plight of refugees who are seeking asylum in a third country.
At the last WCC Central Committee meeting, Chhangte made an intervention on the need for ecumenical accompaniment to address the plight of Myanmar citizens and the situation of internally displaced people, refugees and migrant workers from Myanmar.
Upon her return from Myanmar, she stated that a “re-opening of the registration process in refugee camps in Thailand is much needed. There are more than 150,000 refugees living in crowded camps along the Thai-Burma border."
"In 2005, the Thai government allowed the UNHCR to register people who wanted to be resettled in a third country," However, she added, "This was a one-time registration, and since then the Thai government has resisted requests to re-open registration. The United States has resettled the bulk of the refugees along with a few European countries, Canada and Australia.”
Chhangte coordinates the work of the ABC dealing with migrants from Myanmar in the United States. She reports that “the American Baptist Churches currently have more than 100 congregations across the USA with sizable numbers of Myanmarese who have migrated to the US. More than 80,000 Myanmar refuges have migrated to the U.S since 2006.”
Semegnish Asfaw, who coordinates WCC Living Letters team visits, said that “the members of the solidarity team noted that the youth and women were not so hopeful about their future, given the current situation in the country, although there has been a political change recently. After the long years of conflicts and political stalemate in the country, many young people think that their future seems pretty gloomy.”
The team heard stories of human trafficking, especially of women and young girls. Hundreds of women have been trafficked to neighbouring countries in recent years for forced marriages or forced labour.
In a meeting with church leaders in Myanmar, the visiting delegation heard that since the last general election in November 2010, “Myanmar is slowly evolving towards a more democratic state. However, the new political trend is to introduce changes in a rather slow process which may not be appreciated by the people, who have suffered long enough.”
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the WCC, said that “the church leaders in Myanmar are concerned about the resumption of the conflicts in several states where Christians constitute a large segment of the population.”
According to Mathews George, “Over years the Myanmar churches have played roles in peace and reconciliation, and the effectiveness of that witness is visible in ceasefire agreements in areas like Kachin state, where the ethnic Kachin tribes represented by the Kachin Independent Army and Kachin independence organizations were in conflict with the Myanmar military for years. However, ceasefire negotiations have stalled since the end of June, posing a serious threat to any reasonable political changes in the country.”
Church leaders reported that in Kachin state, several thousand people have been displaced as a result of the conflict that broke out in past weeks, and people are facing serious food shortages as well as the spread of diseases including malaria.