Former Burmese refugee Van Lian Kio said he has been tormented by the flood of social media reports, news accounts and images of brutal military repression of fellow Baptists and other religious minorities in his native country, now known as Myanmar.
The difficulty, the Indianapolis resident and U.S. citizen said, is not being able to help those opposing the junta that overthrew the government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February and is now aggressively expanding its attacks on the nation’s Rohingya Muslim population, 1.7 million Baptists and other groups it considers threats to authoritarian rule.
But that frustration has been eased somewhat by a Baptist-led petition drive and lobbying campaign designed to pressure the U.S. Senate to take action on the stalled Burma Act of 2021. Joining in that effort has been immensely rewarding, said Kio, a community activist with the Grassroots Movement for Burma.
“I’ve got to do something. I grew up back there. I have friends and family back there. And especially at this moment when so many Burmese are hiding and living in the jungle with no sleeping bags and I’m in a cozy house, I have to do something. I can’t just sit by.”
The Baptist campaign to promote passage of the Burma Act has been led by Scott Stearman, representative to the United Nations for the Baptist World Alliance and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Stearman said he shared the frustration and concern of Burmese Americans over the atrocities being committed in Myanmar while knowing that legislation to impose sanctions is mired in partisan gridlock in the U.S. Senate.
“The situation in Burma is really at a crisis point. It is a travesty. People are being murdered in the streets and pastors are being killed,” said Stearman, former pastor at Metro Baptist Church in New York City.
The petition initiative has collected more than 220 signatures from Baptist leaders and reflects the growing collaboration between American Baptists, BWA, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and CBF, he said.
Baptists’ historical missionary connection with Myanmar helps motivate participation in the effort, and Baptists’ reputation for caring for the oppressed is respected within Congress, Stearman said.
“There is, particularly among Republican senators, a willingness to hear from Baptist voices because we have spoken with moral authority on this issue.”
“We as Baptists across the board have had a strong tradition for standing up for religious freedom,” he noted. “There is, particularly among Republican senators, a willingness to hear from Baptist voices because we have spoken with moral authority on this issue.”
The bill already has passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is expected to do well in a coming floor vote. Stearman said he has been meeting with Senate leaders, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to revive the measure in that chamber.
“The goal is to move the needle by bringing more attention to the act,” he said.
It also was encouraging earlier this week when former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was able to win the release of an American journalist imprisoned in Burma.
“I think there is a lot of good will and international religious freedom is still a place where there is partisan agreement and willingness to work across the aisle,” Stearman said.
The petition effort relies on blunt, even terrifying descriptions to generate support.
“Hundreds of thousands of Burmese have taken to the streets in a nationwide uprising,” according to the written plea that accompanies the petition. “This has been met by horrifying violence from the military junta. To date, over 9,900 have been unjustly arrested or detained, over 240,000 have been displaced and more than 1,200 have been killed, including the assassination of a Baptist pastor on September 18.”
Details of that killing also are provided. “Pastor Cung Biak Hum was attempting to help a member of his church extinguish a fire at the man’s home when he was killed. The fire was set by the military.”
The document also explains that oil company lobbyists have opposed a provision of the Burma Act that requires the U.S. State Department study the feasibility of sanctioning Myanmar’s oil and gas enterprises.
But the humanitarian needs, and the fate of Baptists and other minorities, should outweigh those concerns, the faith leaders contend.
“Last year the Myanmar Baptist Convention was the second fastest-growing Baptist convention in the world,” the online statement says. “In March, a convoy of 15 military vehicles with 60 soldiers arrived at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary at 10:45 p.m. They went door by door into every dormitory looking for a New Testament professor who had denounced the military.”
Members of the junta have felt some heat, however. The U.S. this year levied sanctions against leading military officials and their families, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported earlier this month. “To date, none of these sanctions have cited religious freedom violations.”
In a previous report, the commission recommended the U.S. redesignate Burma as a Country of Particular Concern, seek to determine if the actions of the junta constitute crimes against humanity and to fund atrocity prevention programs. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Nov. 17 that Burma is still on the list of Countries of Particular Concern.
Still, it is the lack of concerted international intervention that drives many to protest in the streets in Burma, said Eh Naw, a Burmese American activist in Louisville, Ky.
“Many have expressed that the failure of international conventions requires them to do most of the fighting, and that is why so many persecuted minorities took up arms to protect their rights, identity, homes and resources,” he said.
Naw said he signed the petition being promoted by Stearman in the hope that his name will add another urgent voice to take action for the people of Burma.
“The persecutions and the killings of civilians is an ongoing issue, and while I continue to be cynical about the international community, I remain hopeful that world leaders will come together and make decisions in the interest of humanity and the interest of freedom,” he said.