Reaching the Nations

Burma

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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BurmaGeography

Area:  676,578 square km.  Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, occupies a large area of Southeastern Asia by the Indian Ocean and borders China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India.  The southwest monsoon occurs from June to September whereas the northeast monsoon lasts from December to April.  Milder temperatures and less rainfall characterize the winter and the summer consists of tropical, hot, and rainy weather.  Mangroves line many of the coastal areas, especially near Rangoon.  Flood plains dominate the terrain around Rangoon and rugged highlands cover the northeastern areas bordering Thailand, Laos, and China.  The northernmost areas reach into the Himalayas.  Mountain ranges stretch along the Indian border from the northernmost areas down to the Indian Ocean.  The Irrawaddy River flows north to south traveling from the Himalayas and emptying into the ocean by Rangoon.  The Salween is another major river that cuts through the highlands and empties by Maulmain.  A strip of land travels southward from the Salween River down to the Isthmus of Kra with many small islands along the coast.  Frequent earthquakes and cyclones are natural hazards, the latter especially in the Irrawaddy Delta.  The greatest environmental issues are deforestation and pollution.  Burma is administratively divided into seven divisions and seven states. 

Population: 48,137,741 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 0.783% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.89 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 61.17, female 65.74 (2009)

 

Peoples

Burman: 68%

Shan: 9%

Karen: 7%

Rakhine: 4%

Chinese: 3%

Indian: 2%

Mon: 2%

Other: 5%

 

Burmans constitute the majority and populate coastal regions from the Bangladeshi border to the Irrawaddy Delta, the plains along the Irrawaddy River from Rangoon northward to the middle of Sagaing Division and southern Kachin State, and coastal areas and islands of Tanintharyi Division.  The Shan reside in the highlands located in Shan State.  Karen populate areas along the Thai border in Kayah and Kayin States and reside along the border of Thailand all the way south to the Isthmus of Kra.  Rakhine live in Rakhine State.  The Chinese have a presence in many large cities and have populations concentrated in a couple areas along the Chinese border in Kachin State.  Indians primarily live in Rangoon and Mandalay.  The Mon populate the Mon State.  Other notable minority ethnic groups include Chin, Thai, Va, De’ang, Jingpo, Lisu, Naga, Lahu, and Akha. 

 

Languages: Burmese (66%), Karen dialects (7%), Shan (7%), Chinese (2%), Rohingya (2%), other (16%).  Burmese is the official language.  111 languages are spoken in Burma.  Languages with over one million speakers include Burmese (32 million), Karen dialects (3.2 million), Shan (3.2 million), Chinese (1.0 million), and Rohingya (1.0 million). 

Literacy: 89.9% (2006)

 

History

Various ethnic groups have lived in Burma for thousands of years.  The first known kingdom that encompassed most of present-day Burma was the Bagan or Pagan Kingdom between the 11th and 13th centuries.  The Mongols invaded in the late 13th century. Following their departure, the region fragmented into smaller kingdoms.  Larger kingdoms began to assimilate the smaller kingdoms in the 16th century, notably under the Taungoo Kingdom.  The Konbaung Dynasty expanded Burma into the Assam region of India in the late 18th and the 19th centuries.  The British took control of Burma during the 19th century and did not conquer the entire territory for 62 years.  Burma was administrated by British controlled India until 1937 when it was made into its own colony.  Independence from Great Britain took place in 1948 and was quickly followed by single party military rule.  Ne Win ruled from 1962 to 1988 when he was overthrown by the military.  The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the multiparty elections in 1990 but the junta refused to relinquish their power and placed the leader of the NLD under house arrest for the majority of the time until present.  Anti-government demonstrations and civil disorder occurred in the fall of 2007, which were quickly suppressed with the deaths of at least 13 and the imprisonment of thousands of protesters.  Pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks were e at the forefront of the demonstrations.  Cyclone Nargis caused widespread devastation in May 2008 and left at least 80,000 dead.  Government remains a military junta and closely monitors and controls the population. 

 

Culture 

Theravada Buddhism continues to heavily influence Burmese culture. At times there has been intolerance of Christian groups.  There are a large number of pagodas and monasteries which hold cultural significance.  Soccer is the most popular sport.  Cuisine has similarities with Southeast Asia and includes seafood, noodles, rice, and soup.  Most live in poverty while the small elite are alleged to earn much of their money through the narcotics trade.  Historically women received a large amount of respect and rights but the ruling regime has limited women’s rights.  Overall Burmese are friendly and warm people. 

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $1,200 (2009) [2.6% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.586

Corruption Index: 1.3

The inefficient ruling junta, widely criticized for corruption by international agencies, has poorly managed the economy and has failed to attract greater foreign investment in a nation rich in natural resources.  Poverty is especially widespread and severe in rural areas.  A third of the national population is estimated to live under the poverty line.  Agriculture accounts for 43% of the GDP and employs 70% of the workforce.  Primary agriculture products include rice, pulses, and beans.  Services claim 37% of the GDP and 23% of the workforce.  Primary industries include food processing, timber and wood products, and mining.  Commonly mined minerals and resources include copper, tin, tungsten, iron, oil, gems, and natural gas.  Primary exports include natural gas, wood products, and agricultural products.  Economic sanctions on Burma from many in the international community have limited trade.  Thailand receives half the exports.  Other important export partners include India, China and Japan. Primary import partners include China, Thailand and Singapore.

 

Burma ranks as one of the worst countries worldwide for corruption.  Information concerning much of the perceived illegal activity occurring is limited due to the tight control exerted by the government.  Common illegal activity includes drug trafficking, illegal logging, human trafficking, and close ties between junta leaders and organized crime.  Burma is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan.  Human trafficking occurs with neighboring nations as well as between rural communities and industrial centers for industrial, commercial, and sex trade purposes.  Laws punishing corruption are not enforced.  Over the past few years, the only area where corruption has been reduced has been in

money laundering.[1]  

 

Faiths

Buddhist: 89%

Christian: 4%

Muslim: 4%

Animist: 1%

Other: 2%

 

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Baptist  1,444,132

Catholic  450,000

Seventh-Day Adventists  27,264  205

Jehovah’s Witnesses  3,490  74

Latter-Day Saints  100 + 2

 

Religion

Most Burmese are Theravada Buddhists.  Estimates on the number of Muslims widely vary, with some reports claiming that as much as 20% of the population is Muslim.  Muslims mainly belong to the Rohingya, Malay, Panthay (Burmese Chinese), and Burmese Indian ethnic groups.  75% of Christians are Baptists and the remainder mainly consists of Catholics.  Many of the Christians are from ethnic minority groups (Chin, Kachin, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Kachin) rather than the Burmese majority. 

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 30th

Religious freedom is mentioned in the new constitution, but the government retains the right to limit religious freedom of any groups and often imposes restrictions.  Foreign missionaries were expelled in the 1960s.  Religious groups experience increasing difficulty importing religious literature at this time.  Local Christians oftentimes are not allowed to proselyte.  Christian and Muslims face restrictions on vocabulary as the Pali language is viewed as sacred and only to be used by Buddhists.  Government limits the number of Bibles imported.  Christian and Muslims face delays or restrictions from constructing new buildings and maintaining existing ones.  Preferential treatment of Buddhists and persecution of South Asian Muslims frequently occurs.  The greatest suppression of religious freedom occurs when religious groups coupled political motives in opposition to the military junta.  In recent years, politically active Buddhist monks have experienced heavy persecution from the government.  Muslims in Rakhine State experience the heaviest persecution and many have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.[2] 

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 33%

Rangoon, Mandalay, Mawlamyine, Pathein, Bago, Monywa, Akyab, Meiktila, Taunggyi, Mergui, Dawei, Lashio, Pyay, Myingyan, Henzada, Maymyo, Pakokku, Thaton.

 

One of the 18 largest cities has a congregation.  17% of the national population lives in the 18 largest cities.

 

LDS History

The first Burmese members joined the Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Burmese members traveled to the Thai border and were taught and baptized in Thailand before returning to Burma. 

 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 100 + (2008)

In the late 2000s, six refugees from Burma were members of the Haven Ward in the South Salt Lake Stake.[3]  In 2009, significant Karen-speaking membership growth prompted the creation of the first Karen-speaking branch in Utah.  50 members belonged to the branch at its creation, and over 50 converts join the Church during the following six months.  In addition to Karen, members also spoke Burmese and Karenni.  Sacrament attendance for the branch has climbed to the 170s.[4] 

 

Several Burmese members have joined the Church in South Asia.  Kham Kho Chin Thang went to Malaysia in the early 2000s where he joined the Church and introduced the Church to his fiancé, who also joined.  They later returned to Burma and remained faithful despite a limited Church presence.  The couple attended the temple in Hong Kong in 2006 and continues to reside in Burma.[5] 

 

Due to the status of the government and lack of official Church presence, the Church does not report official membership totals.  

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 1  Groups: 1

The first missionaries arrived in Burma in the 1840s and 1850s and preached in Rangoon.  The branch was shortly thereafter discontinued and later recreated in the 1880s.  A small branch was established that was discontinued prior to 1900.[6]  Burma was assigned to the Singapore Mission in 1969 and thenr to the Thailand Bangkok Mission in 1973.[7]

 

A branch in Rangoon has functioned for many years. A branch was organized in under the Thailand Bangkok Mission named the Thailand Bangkok Mission Burmese Branch for members living in remote locations.  Members likely meet in small groups in additional locations, perhaps including Mandalay.  One member group meets in northern Burma and has infrequent visits and may not be authorized to hold sacrament meetings.  Some missionary reports indicate that additional branches may have been organized in 2009 or 2010.

 

Multiple senior missionary couples serve at a time and have worked in Burma for many years.  Senior couples primary work on humanitarian and development projects and also provide some training and mentoring for Burmese members.

 

Activity and Retention

Activity and retention levels are difficult to ascertain as the Church does not report membership or congregation information.  Local members appear to exhibit high self-sufficiency and activity.  As many as 100 members actively participate in Sunday meetings which may represent over 50% of total membership.

 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese

All LDS scriptures and most Church materials are available in Mandarin and Cantonese.  Burmese translations of Church materials are limited to Gospel Fundamentals and The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony.  A few General Conference talks have been translated into Burmese starting in the 2000s. 

 

Meetinghouses

The building housing the Rangoon Branch is a renovated building that is either owned or rented by the Church.  Groups likely meet in the privacy of members’ homes. 

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church provided continued humanitarian and development assistance in Burma for several years following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.[8]  Water projects have occurred over the past several years in locations such as in Kayin State.  Senior missionaries donated 200 school bags for children at a local monastery.  LDS charities have donated funds to bring clean water for local hospitals. 

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church has made significant progress in establishing the Church in Burma despite the restrictive nature of the military junta.  Current legislation and government policies prohibit the Church’s foreign missionary program and limits missionary work among members.  The LDS Church carefully honors and obeys the law in Burma.  Existing members are generally permitted to meet, but outreach is largely limited to family and personal contacts of members.

 

Cultural Issues

Persecution of Christians from Buddhists and the government is a major cultural issue that has persisted over the past 50 years. 

 

National Outreach

Virtually the entire population remains unreached by the Church.  Only those with close friends or family members in the Church have access to learning more about the Church.  The branch in Rangoon and other congregations in different locations may one day provide the Church with the opportunity to conduct missionary work both in and outside Rangoon if open proselytism is allowed.  The mission president from the Thailand Bangkok Mission frequently visits Burma to meet with local members in the Rangoon Branch and other locations.  The large rural population will be a challenge for the Church to reach in the coming decades. 

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Member activity appears among the highest in Asian countries without an official Church presence.  It is unclear whether many convert join the Church in Burma or whether most members joined the Church in other nations and later returned to their homeland.  Member activity is likely limited due to the distribution of few members in many areas around the country. 

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The Church does not appear to have faced issues with differing ethnic groups assimilating into the same congregation likely due to the extreme limited member presence.  Challenges may occur if the Church experiences greater growth with differences between Burmese and other ethnic groups. 

 

Language Issues

Church meetings are held in Burmese or English.  Sunday School is conducted in Burmese.  Members fluent in both Burmese and English assist senior missionaries in traveling around the country and translating Church materials.  The lack of any LDS scripture translations in Burmese greatly challenges the development of a Burmese member base and limits understanding of gospel principles. 

 

With the exception of a couple Chinese languages, the lack of church resources in any minority language materials also limits outreach and the doctrinal understanding of members from minority groups.  The recent rapid increase of Karen speaking membership in Salt Lake City may necessitate the translation of Church materials in Karen and other minority languages which could be utilized in Burma.

 

Leadership

In 2006, a senior missionary served as the president of the Rangoon Branch.  The second Burmese missionary to serve a mission from Burma began his mission in 2007.  Local leadership continues to be very limited and limits greater membership growth outside of Rangoon. 

 

Temple

Burma belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple District.  Some Burmese members have been to the temple to receive their endowments.  The trip for members to Hong Kong is expensive and demanding on time and distance.  Prospects of a nearer temple in Thailand or Singapore would greatly reduce the challenges members experience to go to the temple. 

 

Comparative Growth

Burma has seen comparable growth to other South and Southeast Asian nations in which the Church does not have official recognition.  Nepal and Laos have similarly sized membership and national outreach.  The Church in Burma has achieved greater progress than in Bangladesh.  Among nations without an official Church presence with organized branches in Asia, Burma faces challenges in sending out local full-time missionaries. 

 

Baptist and Catholic denominations gained the majority of their converts and established themselves prior to the rise of the current government.  However, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have seen continued growth and have numerous congregations throughout the country.  These denominations benefit from local members who carry on ecclesiastical duties with little to no assistance from outside the country.  Christian groups report increases in membership, but government restrictions on proselytizing limit growth..  Nonetheless, the continued expansion of such groups demonstrates the potential for considerable LDS growth through member-missionary efforts even under challenging conditions.

 

Future Prospects

The growth of the LDS Church in Burma will depend on local members sharing the Church’s teachings with close friends and family for membership growth to occur.  Burmese baptized abroad and returning home may provide additional resources to increase the strength and reach of the Church in Burma.  Once additional congregations are created in the Rangoon area, a district may be organized.  Outreach to the population will be limited to close friends and family of members until significant change occurs in government policies regarding religion and proselytism. 

 


[1] Chene, Marie. “Overview of corruption in Burma (Myanmar),” Transparency International, 23 March 2009.

[2] “Burma,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127266.htm

[3] Askar, Jamshid. “Part of the family: Mentors kit close ties with their changes,” LDS Church News, 13 May 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57324/Part-of-the-family-Mentors-knit-close-ties-with-their-charges.html

[4] Stettler, Jeremiah. “Finding refuge – and resources – in the LDS Church,” The Salt Lake Tribute, 2010.1.1 http://www.sltrib.com/lds/ci_14095518

[5] “The search for a better life,” News from the Church, 2 July 2008. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?locale=0&sourceId=64df050a380ea110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=7cecc8fe9c88d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

[6] “India,” Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac, p. 502-4

[7] “The Church in Thailand,” Friend, Apr 1975, 42

[8] Weaver, Sarah Jane. “Unprecedented year,” LDS Church News, 14 January 2006. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48384/Unprecedented-year.html