Many of you will remember that I visited Myanmar for the first time in 2011, conducting and witnessing my way through vast sections of the country. At that time, and for a few years after, this church was instrumental in providing much-needed funds to Myanmar’s children and young adults, assisting with life-giving education, food, and shelter. After four trips, my last visit to the country was in January of 2017. I was unable to return because of my husband’s illness.
In the interim, the band of volunteers with whom I traveled coalesced into a small non-profit organization, called Mettā Partners in Myanmar (Mettā is the Pali word for “loving kindness”). Eight of us, well-intentioned, not all that well-informed, with energy and passion, watched the country change and develop and grow, right before our eyes. And we continued to fund important educational and business programs that support the young people of Myanmar.
Little more than a decade ago, Myanmar was a poverty-stricken country, tightly ruled (by threat and fear) by the Military, with no exposure to modern culture. No Google, no social media, no cell phones, few cars, no traffic rules, no fast food, no toilets, no Western cinema, or cable or streaming or…My first trip was a true eye opener. I will never forget crossing from one territory into another, with military guns pointed at our cars. We were ordered out of our cars and waited for one hour, (accompanied by guards) while the military determined if we could pass. We traveled with well-connected and skillful in-country partners, who coached us and navigated us through this challenging world.
I taught music in Yangon, in an underground music school, for the most eager and loving of youth; we met and partnered with a marvelous Buddhist monk and his students in the poorest outskirts of Yangon, who built, out of sheer will, a school with eight grades for the community children; we traveled to the mountains, to teach and support the children and youth of an orphanage (from infancy to 23 years old) – where there were no true orphans, just children whose parents could not afford to keep them. We met the fisher folk of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea; we supported the shopkeepers on the banks of the Irrawaddy River; we explored the architectural majesty of Bagan’s temple plains (there are still @ 2000 crumbling temples there); we found the holy at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the country’s most sacred temple.
To say that those trips changed my life is an understatement. I returned home each time, grateful for our country, despite national complexities and systemic injustices.
Myanmar’s full emergence from isolation — economic, political, and social — only came five years ago when the military began sharing power with an elected government headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. A population that barely had any knowledge of the internet quickly made up for lost time. Young people relished in social media, cell phones, email, and modern conveniences; average citizens acquired cars; life was, for the first time, hopeful, somewhat prosperous, globally connected.
On February 1, 2021, the military junta, under the direction of General Min Aung Hlaing, seized power and imprisoned the country’s civilian leaders. Soldiers, called the Tatmadaw, regularly sweep through the cities, arresting, abducting, assaulting, and killing civilians. As of this writing, more than 770 civilians have been killed by security forces, among them dozens of children. The military has accomplished its goal: the reassertion and sustaining of power by fear and violence.
Residents have deleted their Facebook accounts, have destroyed incriminating mobile phone cards and erased traces of support for Myanmar’s elected government. There is sustained civil disobedience, mass protests, and a national strike: the economy is paralyzed, and hospitals and financial institutions are closed. Our in-country partners have fled their homes. Our dearest partner’s home in Yangon is raided daily by the military. Her son was arrested and imprisoned, but she was lucky. She had enough U.S. dollars to bribe her son out of prison. He has now fled for safer territory.
There is a strange upside to this tragedy: with the Tatmadaw’s violence unleashed, some are acknowledging that democracy cannot flourish without respecting the ethnic minorities (i.e. the Rohingya Muslims) who have endured decades of persecution. Could it be that a new generation of political action has emerged that has transcended old divisions and old prejudices and gives hope for a future Myanmar that embraces its diversity?
My reason for writing is to express my sincerest gratitude to this congregation and to ask for your prayers. Prayers for Myanmar’s future, which is fixed in bloodshed, oppression, and poverty. Prayers for the country’s beautiful and disheartened children. Prayers for hope.
In truth, my heart is broken.
May God’s grace permeate and hold a country that stands on shaky, blood-soaked ground.
Jane Ring Frank
Minister of Music and Worship Arts