An American Baptist delegation began ministering to Burmese refugees living along the Thai-Burma border Monday during a visit to better understand the refugee-to- resettlement process and to reaffirm historic ties between the denomination and the Burmese people.
Members of the American Baptist Churches (ABC) USA delegation will travel to refugee camps in Thailand, meet with organizations working with Burmese refugees, and visit a Thai government office that handles refugee resettlement during their Feb. 11-21 visit.
"Many of us are members of the ABC Taskforce on Burmese Refugees which is helping us respond to the refugees who are being released from the Thai camps for resettlement in the United States," wrote Roy Medley, ABCUSA general secretary, in the blog chronicling the group's visit to the refugee camps.
ABCUSA has assisted thousands of Burmese refugees to resettle in the United States through Church World Service's Immigration and Refugee Program.
"We are pastors and denominational staff who go [to Thailand] to learn in order to better serve as the hands and feet of Christ," ABC's Medley wrote.
Historically, American and Burmese Baptists have a long relationship which dates back to the early 19th century. In 1813, U.S. Baptists for the first time came together to form what is today known as International Ministries, after the arrival of Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson to Burma.
After the Judsons' arrival, Baptist work continued to grow in Burma, especially among ethnic minorities, who continually faced persecution the entire time Baptists worked in the country, according to ABC.
A political change in the Burmese government in the 1960s forced foreign missionaries to leave, including American Baptist missionaries. But, International Ministries still maintained strong ties with the Myanmar Baptist Convention, which is over 100 years old.
Under the military government, there was increased persecution of ethnic minorities in Burma – the former name of Myanmar and the preferred name by those opposed to the junta government – forcing tens of thousands of Burmese to flee their homes and take shelter in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.
Armed military often raze villages of the Karen, Karenni, and Chin people – who are mostly Christians – and systematically rape the woman and arbitrarily kill the men, leading to hundreds of thousands of displaced Burmese.
Norwegian Church Aid believes that as many as half a million people are currently displaced, with the worst affected area being Karen State, where at least 38 people have been murdered in the Thanduang province in 2007 alone.
Last fall, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the capital city, Yangon, and other cities to protest against the junta's atrocious human rights violations and call for democracy.
Military forces used bullets, tear gas, and clubs to break up the street protests. Human rights group and Burmese dissidents reported that the government arrested nearly 6,000 people and killed more than 200 in the crackdown against the demonstration, although the junta only admits to the death of about 10 people and arresting some 1,000 people.
But on Saturday, the military government made a historic announcement that it plans to hold a referendum on the proposed constitution in May 2008 and a general election in 2010. This is the first timetable that it has ever outlined for a constitution and election.
Most human rights group, however, called the declaration a sham, and called the government to instead hold reconciliation talks with the opposition party of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of ethnic minority groups if it is serious about democracy, according to The Associated Press.
The U.S. State Department has designated Myanmar as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) – the worst religious freedom violation label.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of Burmese refugees will resettle in the United States over the next two to three years. In the past two years alone, nearly 14,000 Burmese refugees have fled their homeland and permanently resettled in the United States.