Missionaries, Christian

   The role of Christian missionaries in Burmese history is controversial. They are often depicted as accomplices of British colonial oppression and agents of cultural imperialism, robbing indigenous people of their "authentic" beliefs and ways of life, but other observers point to their vital role in promoting health, education, and literacy, and a new national identity for ethnic minority peoples, especially among the Karens (Kayins), Kachins, and Chins.
   The first Christian missionaries were Roman Catholic and accompanied the Portuguese when they established a presence in Lower Burma in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most prominent early convert was Nat Shin-naung, lord of Toungoo (Taungoo) and would-be king, who was also renowned as a poet. Outraged by his renunciation of Buddhism and the egregious behavior of Felipe de Brito, which included plundering the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, King Anaukpetlun of Ava (Inwa) captured Toungoo and Syriam (Thanlyin) in 1613 and subjected de Brito to a horrible execution. However, Christianity was not totally eradicated; throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, Roman Catholic priests, most notably Father Vincentius Sangermano, carried out limited missionary work, and a large church was built by a wealthy Armenian family at Syriam around 1766.
   Because the commercially oriented East India Company did not want missionaries working in the areas under its control, Protestant missionaries did not arrive in Burma until the early 19th century. The first were Adoniram Judson and his wife Ann, American Baptists, who landed at Rangoon (Yangon) in 1813 and tried, without much success, to proselytize Buddhist Burmans (Bamars). But the Judsons, who relocated themselves in British-occupied territories after the First Anglo-Burmese War, won a large number of converts among the Karens (Kayins). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Baptists achieved even greater success among the Kachins and Chins. Other Christian denominations, including the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Seventh-Day Adventists, have made many converts among the Karennis (Kayah), Padaungs, and Nagas. Because large measure to the missionaries' work, some 4 percent of Burma's population is now Christian, of whom three-quarters are Baptists and most of the rest Roman Catholic.
   The missionary experience in Burma generally conformed to a pattern found throughout the non-Western world: Adherents to "world religions," such as Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism were generally satisfied with their own faiths and suspicious of the missionaries' intentions, while animists, living in localized, "tribal" societies, were often quite receptive, though their enthusiasm for Christianity is sometimes exaggerated by church historians (many Chins, for example, were outraged by Christian desecration of their ancient holy places). Not only could missionaries offer the "hill tribes" medical care, schooling, and other social services (which were not always appreciated), but the Christian religion as they preached it intersected in meaningful ways with traditional beliefs. For example, many of the hill tribe people believed in a Supreme God and an afterlife, and had a mytho-history sharing themes with the Bible (e.g., accounts of a great flood). Resentment of oppression at the hands of Buddhist Burmans led hill Karens to believe they would be liberated by white foreigners bringing a powerful sacred Book. Many missionaries actively promoted a "national identity" for minority peoples by devising writing systems, promoting language/dialect standardization, and making translations of the Bible and other books into indigenous languages. Missionary schools fostered a new elite of preachers and teachers, and Christian minority soldiers formed the backbone of the colonial armed forces, many of whom rebelled against the Burmese government after independence in 1948.
   Conversions were often inspired by the courage and dedication of individual missionaries, who typically were few in number, short of resources, and frequently exposed to dangers in isolated "mission stations" in the hills. Although some worked closely with British colonial authorities, others, such as the Baptist Laura Carson among the Chins, were outspokenly critical of British "pacification" policies. Burmans viewed the missionary construction of minority national identity as a "divide and rule" tactic. There was an element of truth to this; for example, during the Third Anglo-Burmese War, some foreign missionaries encouraged Karens to cooperate with the British in suppressing Burmese rebels. Moreover, the close connection between the Buddhist religion and national identity (Buddha Bata Myanma Lu-myo, "to be Burmese/Burman is to be Buddhist") among the Burmese meant that Christians were not viewed as genuine members of mainstream Burmese society, a sentiment that reaches back at least to the days of Nat Shin-naung in the 17th century and is also widespread today.
   After Ne Win established the Revolutionary Council in March 1962, foreign missionaries were obliged to leave the country, and the schools they had established, such as the prestigious Methodist High School in Rangoon (one of its alumnae is Aung San Suu Kyi) were nationalized, a measure that robbed them of their religious character. Since 1988 the State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council has aggressively promoted the Buddhist religion, including the sponsorship of pagoda construction nationwide. Sometimes Christians and other religious minorities are forced to contribute to these activities, while the building of new churches and the holding of Christian meetings are sharply circumscribed. The SPDC has been accused of carrying out systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, and seems to have the attitude that Christians, because of their religion, are potentially subversive and disloyal elements.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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