Two cars and a truck rumbled to a stop on a dirt road in a village on the outskirts of Rangoon, the capital city of Burma, also known as Myanmar. The vehicles carried a volunteer team coming to hold a medical clinic at the village church. Pastor William, in his 40s but looking younger, walked out to meet the team members and lead them over the dirt path to the church building. He was wearing a white, long-sleeved dress shirt together with a lunghi, the traditional skirt-like wear for Burmese men. Along either side of the path were wooden shed-sized homes with roofs of tin.
Arriving at the church, the team gathered for prayer, then began to set up in the dim and cramped building. They quickly arranged five stations, each consisting of a table and three chairs: one for the doctor or nurse, one for the patient, and one for the interpreter. Against the wall were two more tables on which were cough and cold remedies, pain relievers, stomach medications, antibiotics, skin creams, vitamins, and a few other drugs.
The team from the United States had obtained nearly all the supplies through donation or at a discount, and purchased additional vitamins and some malaria medicines in the city. Team members adjusted to shopping with stacks of the local currency, as the largest banknote is 1,000 kyat, which is worth less than one U.S. dollar.
Outside the building, 20 or so plastic chairs lined up across the front and around the shaded side already were occupied by patients waiting for the clinic to open. Working steadily from morning to late afternoon, the team was able to treat nearly 250 patients, predominantly elderly men and women, and children brought by their parents. Coughs and respiratory ailments were common, and the team dispensed many antibiotics. Malnutrition also was much in evidence, weakening immune systems and leading to generally poor health.
This was the first time Pastor William had hosted such a clinic, and he was excited at the boost it would give to his church in the eyes of the community. "We are pleased to offer this service to the people as a practical demonstration of the love of Christ," he said.
Pastor William was a construction engineer by training and trade. But several years ago he felt God calling him to give up his job and become a pastor. "I finally gave in and listened to what God was telling me to do. Now I'm glad to be serving God and His people."
Pastor William's church was founded and built by his father, Pastor Heku, a former soldier. As a young man, Heku heard the gospel from a traveling evangelist and gave his life to Christ. He was the only convert in the village. Ostracized by his relatives and neighbors, Heku joined the army and left. He remained faithful to the Lord through years of military service.
Upon his retirement at age 60, he had a great desire to serve the Lord, so he went to Bible college and studied for three years. His former military colleagues granted his request for a tract of land on which to build a church, which he pastored for 16 years. Now approaching 80, Heku remains on the scene but has turned primary pastoral responsibilities over to his son.
A solid block structure, the church served as a place of refuge for several families whose flimsy homes were destroyed by cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Brick walls are now being built in preparation for expansion, as the congregation has surpassed the 100 mark and is outgrowing the facilities.
The ruling junta allows Christians to practice their religion, but the government imposes strict restrictions on religious activities and flexes its muscles from time to time to assert its authority over believers. Churches routinely have difficulty obtaining permission to build new places of worship or repair existing ones. In January of this year, the ruling junta issued orders forbidding Christians in the capital city to gather in house-church meetings, and in February many churches in the city were ordered to stop holding services. (The ruling junta changed the official name of Rangoon to Yangon, but the United States does not formally recognize either Yangon or Myanmar as official names.) The persecution waxes and wanes according to the whims or temperaments of local officials.
Around mid-morning, two government officials stopped by the clinic to observe. Pastor William was on good terms with the village authorities and had informed them about the clinic. But these officials were from the district immigration office. They collected passport information (names, citizenship, passport, and visa numbers) from all the foreigners, and left without incident. A couple of days later, the team drove out to a different village to hold another church-based clinic, but this time local authorities refused permission. The team tried to change the venue to the pastor's home, but the authorities issued a directive forbidding anyone from the village to visit the foreign doctors.
The local officers' attitude mirrored the government's resistance to foreign aid after the devastation of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma with devastating effect in May 2008. When international condemnation forced them to relent, the rulers continued to restrict access to certain areas, and in many cases co-opted supplies and presented them to victims as government aid. Little has changed since then, as the regime continues to prioritize its own grip on power above the welfare of its citizens.
Disappointed but not daunted, the team returned to Rangoon and set up at ACTS Children's Home, where they examined many of the 240 children housed and cared for there. The children's faces were smeared with thanaka, a yellowish cosmetic paste made from the ground bark of certain trees, said to provide protection from the sun and to promote smooth and healthy skin.
About 40 of the children were orphans, some of whom lost their parents in last year's deadly cyclone. Single mothers or indigent parents who could no longer support them had abandoned most of the others or brought them to the home. Some parents had been killed or incapacitated by drug use. While now a distant second to Afghanistan in global opium cultivation, Burma has recently become the largest producer of methamphetamines in Asia, and drug trafficking remains a primary income-generating activity for families in border areas. Late last month, tens of thousands of refugees fled into China from Kokang, a heavily ethnic Chinese enclave in the northeastern Shan State, driven out by violent clashes between government troops and the local militia. Kokang has been a lawless region, dominated by drug trafficking and gambling. The government's attempt to pacify the area is seen as preparation for next year's scheduled elections, the first in two decades.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi will sit out the elections under house arrest, having just been sentenced to an additional 18 months of detention due to the unauthorized visit of American John Yettaw, who swam across the lake to her home on May 5. Sentenced to seven years of hard labor for his crime, Yettaw was released and returned home thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and others. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won 82 percent of the votes in the 1990 elections, but the military junta refused to relinquish power. Instead of becoming prime minister, she was placed under detention at her home, where she has been held captive for 14 of the past 19 years.
In June, the junta sentenced two supporters of Suu Kyi to 18 months in prison for leading prayers for her release at a Buddhist pagoda. The government actively promotes Buddhism over other religions, while monitoring all religious activities. Most Christian ministers try to keep a low profile, and avoid overt political activity.
Despite U.S. sanctions and State Department designation as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its religious restrictions, Burma will hold elections next year that few observers expect to bring significant change. A new constitution guarantees the military jurisdiction over key ministries, and the right to take power in times of crisis. Civilians in government positions are likely to remain under the thumb of the generals.
In the meantime, Burma's Christians take advantage of their limited freedoms, praying for the liberation of their country one life at a time.
-Russell Board is a writer living in Japan