VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 12/16/22)—After months of advocacy efforts by many American Baptists, the Burma Act Bill was passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday, December 15. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees had in recent weeks included the Burma Act amendment in the final language of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 (NDAA).
General Secretary Dr. C. Jeff Woods said, “If anyone is wondering if denominations are still needed today, this is a prime example of the power of a group congregations and institutions with similar polity choosing to work together on a critical issue. This result would not have been possible without the cooperative efforts of national, international, and local staff and volunteers, journeying together toward a common goal. We are indebted to the Burma Advocacy Group, the Burma Refugee Commission, American Baptist International Ministries (IM), American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS), the Regional Executive Ministers Council (REMC) and MMBB Financial Services (MMBB) for the collective efforts toward this outcome.”
A special advocacy group, called the Burma Advocacy Group and chaired by General Secretary Emeritus Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, was formed as a subcommittee of the ABC Burma Refugee Commission to focus exclusively on advocacy for the people of Myanmar. This advocacy group eventually included partnerships with over 20 U.S. church and advocacy groups related to the Burma diaspora in our country. The efforts of this group in large part led to the passage of this bill.
“This bill is of great importance as it contains provisions for substantial humanitarian aid, support for the democracy movement, and sanctions against those persons/entities funding the unlawful regime,” said Medley. “Our efforts began last year with the theme ‘Pray and Act for Burma.’ Each has been essential in securing the passage of this bill. When we had felt it was all but lost, God heard our prayers and the bill was given new life when Rep. Gregory Meeks, in an unforeseen legislative move, gave it new life.”
The tenets of the bill include nearly all of the specific components for which the Burma Advocacy Group has been advocating for over the last several months. More specifically, the bill:
- Codifies that it is the policy of the United States to support the efforts of the National Unity Government (NUG) in Burma, support the restoration of the civilian government with constitutional reforms, holding Russia and the PRC accountable for supporting the Burmese military;
- Imposes mandatory sanctions on Burmese military officials or state-owned commercial enterprises;
- Gives the President authority to sanction Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and other entities at his discretion;
- Requires a report within six months on sanctions for Burma’s energy sector;
- Requires the State Department Office of Sanctions Coordination to develop a strategy to promote human rights and the restoration of civilian government; and
- Authorizes funding to strengthen federalism among the states, consistent with constitutional reform efforts; support for civil society groups to document atrocities; etc.
These components are a part of specific asks that numerous American Baptist staff, volunteers, and other partners have been demanding for several months.
Since the military coup on February 1, 2021, the American Baptist Churches USA, a denomination of nearly 5,000 churches and 1.3 million people in the U.S, have worked tirelessly to promote peace, justice, and religious freedom for the people of Burma.
Van Lian Kio, a member of the Burma Advocacy Group and the Grassroots Movement for Burma, Rev. Henry Van Ceu Lyan, secretary of the Peace and Justice Committee, Chin Baptist Churches USA, Zo Tu Hmung, executive director of the Chin Association of Maryland, Rev. Saw Ler Htoo, senior pastor of Calvary Burmese Church in Washington D.C. and general secretary of Karen Baptist Churches USA, and Scott Stearman, International Advocacy Baptist Collaborative, U.N. Representative Baptist World Alliance (ECOSOC)/Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (DGC) all played key volunteer roles in the advocacy efforts.
Additionally, the efforts of two ABC staff persons, Leslie Turley IM’s area director for Southeast Asia and Japan, and Florence Li, ABHMS’ national coordinator for Asian Ministries, were critical in surfacing contacts and generating information on the ground in Myanmar and among family members and relatives in the U.S. that could be used for advocacy efforts in the U.S.
In the spring of 2007, the national Burma Refugee Task Force (BRTF) was first initiated in response to the influx of Burma refugees. The name was changed to the Burma Refugee Commission (BRC) in 2014. There are 80,000 Burma refugee immigrants who are now affiliated with ABCUSA and live across 130 cities, towns, urban and suburban areas in the U.S.
“This has been a true grass roots effort. Our American Baptist churches have stepped up by signing letters to their representatives in congress, making phone calls and visits to offices in their home states as well as in Washington D.C. Our hope is action will be taken quickly to bring freedom to Burma (Myanmar),” said Rev. Dr. Robin Stoops, interim associate general secretary for Mission Resource Development and an active member of the Burma Advocacy Group.
The International Religious Freedom Summit (IRFS) held in June 2022 in Washington, D.C. has helped greatly in connecting with other groups supportive of the people in Burma. American Baptist participation in the annual summit was sponsored by the ABCUSA Office of General Secretary, the REMC, MMBB and IM. ABHMS also helped to sponsor a table at the event, working with the Chin Association of Maryland and the REMC who provided published reports. A group of Chin, Karen and Kachin pastors and people led a presentation at the 2022 summit about the military coup and the impact the coup has had on lives and property. The next IRFS summit will be held January 31-February 1, 2023, in Washington DC.
“The IRFS summit is a place as Baptists we should be, over 40 religious’ groups from around the world gather to work for religious freedom everywhere, now. It is a part of our Baptist DNA,” said Stoops.
The history of involvement with Burma (Myanmar today) dates back over 200 years, when Ann and Adoniram Judson, the first American missionaries, landed in the port of Rangoon on July 13, 1813. The Judsons and other early missionaries introduced Christianity to the Burmese, Chin, Karen, Kachin, Shan, and many other ethnic groups of Burma. As a result of the American Baptist mission work, Baptists constitute the largest Christian organization in Myanmar currently numbering nearly 1.4 million members in 17 Baptist Conventions. Through International Ministries (IM), the American Baptist international mission agency, the ABC family provides relief and development, educational scholarships, theological training, church development, and medical work in the country.
American Baptist Churches USA is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with approximately 5,000 congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.