Southeast Asian Country Profiles


Myanmar/Burma

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Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a southeast Asian country siting between India and Bangladesh in the west, and Thailand, Laos, and China to the east. With 55.6 million people and 135 officially recognized ethnic minorities [1a], Burma is an ethnically diverse country. A former British colony from 1824 – 1948, Burma was occupied by Japan during WWII and liberated from Japan by British and American forces in 1945. Granted independence from Britain in 1948, the ethnic Burmese – who were primarily Buddhist -  took power, to the exclusion of those who were a part of communist political parties and those ethnic minorities who had allied themselves with the British during colonial rule.  The ethnic minorities (i.e. the Wa, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chin) had also widely adopted Christianity early on during colonial rule.  Having been denied a place at the political table for the newly formed country, the communists and Christian Karen began fighting for independence in 1948, seeking to form their own countries based on ethnic divisions.  In 1962, The Burmese military overthrew the democratically led government, and installed a military Junta to rule over the country. Encompassing many ethnic minorities over the ensuing decades, this civil war has been going on for over 70 years and is one of the longest running Civil Wars in the world today.

Photo: Map of Myanmar | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar

Photo: Map of Myanmar | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar

There are 135 distinct ethnic minorities in Burma, but these ethnic minorities are severely discriminated against and the ruling Burmese regularly treat them as being lower than dogs or monkeys for several reasons:

1. Many of the ethnic minorities had allied themselves with the British during colonial rule (pre-1948);

2. Many ethnic minorities enthusiastically embrace Christianity under British rule in a country which is nearly 90% Buddhist;

3. Numerous ethnic minorities groups have been fighting against the government in a very bloody 70-year-old civil war.

Consequently, most ethnic minority communities are intentionally kept in poverty, denied educational opportunities for education, denied access to banks or development opportunities, or cannot join the military - unless they renounce their ethnicity and convert to Buddhism.  In some place, Christians are harassed by government officials or the police for simply being Christian.  Some pastors report having to submit their weekly sermons to government officials for approval to keep their churches open. 

Many ethnic minority groups in SE Asia have a long standing oral tradition that promised white men and women from across the sea would bring them a golden book that told of the one true creator God. When the gospel was first introduced to these groups by British and American missionaries in the 19th and 20th century, they readily accepted Christianity and the Bible as the long-promised message and book. But because of the degrading poverty of these people groups – most only engage in sustenance farming and barely make any money to spend – the vast majority of these Christian ethnic groups, including their pastors, could never dream of having the money to purchase a Bible.  Even if an individual or church were able to raise the money for a Bible, they cannot find any Bibles to purchase, even in the big cities. One Lahu pastor put their situation this way:

We do not have a Bible in our family. It's not easy to own a Bible. We work 8 hours per day and earn only 2,000 Myanmar Kyats (US$1.50). My salary is 15,000 Kyats (US$ 10.86) per month. So it is totally impossible to buy a Bible at US$15 or US$20 per copy. We sometimes don't even have enough money for food. In 1995 the Lahu Baptist Convention tried to buy Bibles for their ministers, but there were no Bibles to buy …  Most Lahu churches in my area have only one Bible for the whole church. Therefore, it is very difficult to grow spiritually. The road to my village is amazingly difficult. In summer it's a dusty road. In the rainy season it's a muddy road. The government has not allowed us to build a church, and they must see every sermon before it is preached. But we are still faithful in God and we always worship him.

In 2010, the military Junta was officially dissolved and a general election allowed. However, since this transition, very little had changed regarding the treatment of ethnic minorities and armed civil war.  Serious human rights abuses by the Burmese military continue against religious minorities and there are widespread reports of child soldiers forced into the military, forced labor and human trafficking throughout Burma.


Thailand

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Officially known as The Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam, Thailand sits between Burma/Myanmar to the west, Laos to the north and east, and Cambodia to the southeast.  Thailand is the only southeast Asian country to have never fallen under colonial rule by the British or French.  Adopting a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has been alternately ruled by democratically elected leaders and military juntas off and on since 1932.  It is currently lead by a military junta which took power in a coup d’état in 2014.

With a population of 68.6 million, 97.5% of the population is ethnic Thai and 94.6% of the population is Buddhist [1b]. The remaining 5% of the population is one of the 62 officially recognized ethnic minorities, also known as known as “hill tribes” as these people groups reside in the mountainous north and west. While there are sizeable hill tribal groups in the north and west of Thailand, there are also a sizeable number of ethnic minority refuges in IDP camps who have been pushed across the border from Burma due to the 70-year-old civil war (see Burma, above), and from Laos during the Laotian civil war between the Pathet Lao and Hmong hill tribes.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees live in these IDP camps, many who are unable (or unwilling) to return home but are also unable to leave their refugee camps in Thailand. These refugees are often extremely poor and neglected, unable to work to provide for their needs.

Photo: Map of Thailand | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thailand

Photo: Map of Thailand | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thailand

While the 95% of the Thai population is among the most active Buddhist practitioners in the world, Thailand enjoy relative religious freedom.  Many of the ethnic hill tribes and ethnic minorities are practicing Christians, having quickly adopted Christianity from British and American missionaries in the 19th and 20th century. While there is little persecution towards Christians in Thailand, most hill tribe people and ethnic minorities are extremely poor and are unable to get a Bible in their native language, due to the lack of Bibles being available to purchase. When Bibles are available, they are priced way beyond what a poor farmer could ever hope to pay. One Lahu church elder in northwest Thailand said this:

“I have a Bible, but since I am doing evangelism, all the new believers need a Bible in their home.  But there are no Bibles available.  So I have been praying for them, and now God is answering my prayer through you.  People have been trying to find Bibles, and if we hear a rumor there are Bibles for sale in one town we go there, but we cannot find Bibles anywhere, not even in the big city.  Many years ago, someone came to our village to sell the Bibles to us, but they were 400 Thai Baht ($15 USD) for one, and some people could afford this, but many families cannot afford this.  Many people here are day laborers and they only have enough money to feed their families.”

Many times, the idea of a national boundary is not nearly as strong as an ethic identity, so helping Christians get Bibles in Thailand also help the Christians in Burma, Laos and vise-versa. These Christians want and need God’s Word, but they need the help of Christians in the west to make it happen! 


Laos

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Official known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos is the only landlocked country in south east Asia, being surrounded by Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, Thailand to the west, Burma/Myanmar and China to the north.  Laos has a relatively small population compared to its neighbors with only 6.8 million inhabitants.  While there are 49 recognized ethnic minorities, the CIA factbook states there are well over 200 ethnic minorities in Laos. Ethic Laotians make up 53.2% of the population; hill tribes like the Khmu and Hmong make up 11% and 9.2% respectively with the remaining 26% being various other hill tribes. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 155 in GDP per capita [1c]

Chinese bandits threatened to overtake the country in the late 19th century and the French drove the Chinese out, making Laos a French protectorate in the process. The Japanese invaded and occupied Laos during WWII, with French and Laos resistance fighters attempting to end the Japanese occupation until Japan’s surrender to the Allies in August of 1945. Laos briefly asserted its independence in 1945 but was reoccupied by France in 1946. Upon this reoccupation, the First Indochina War began with Laos communists (Pathet Lao) fighting for independence from France alongside the Vietnamese communists fighting for independence from the French for their country. The French granted independence to Laos in 1954, but under the Royal Lao Army – not the Communist Pathet Lao – making Laos a constitutional monarchy. Six years later in 1960, civil war broke out between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Army for control of the country, with the North Vietnamese and Soviet Union supporting the Pathet Lao.  Over the subsequent 14 years, through its stated containment policy, The United States became embroiled in what came to be known in the west as the Vietnam War by supporting South Vietnam and secretly supporting the Royal Lao government against the communist armies seeking to overtake both countries.  The amount of bomb tonnage dropped on Laos by the United States during this period is equal to the amount of bomb tonnage dropped on Europe and Asia in all of WWII. Ultimately, the Pathet Lao were victorious in gaining control over the entire country; Laos remains a single party socialist country to this day.

Photo: Map of LPDR | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos

Photo: Map of LPDR | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laos

During the United States “secret war” in Laos and the official war in Vietnam, the American CIA and US Special Forces trained, equipped, and supported a secret army of Hmong fighters to fight against the Lao and Vietnamese communists.  One grave result of this policy was that once the Royal Lao government and South Vietnamese were defeated and the communist parties ruled each of the respective countries, the hammer of retaliation fell hard on the Hmong people in both countries. The Hmong – and other hill tribe people groups like the Khmu - have been a persecuted and discriminated ethnicity ever since. Most of the hill tribe people also readily accepted Christianity when it was first introduced in the 19th and 20th century. Since Christianity has been associate with these hill tribes for many decades and the fact that Christianity is seen as a western religion, there is overt distrust of Christians and hill tribe people as being pawns of the CIA, seeking to overthrow the communist governments in Laos and Vietnam.

Additionally, Laos is a highly collectivist society and most hill tribes practice ancestor worship and some form of animism; it is important for hill tribe peoples to remain a part of their village and family (which are usually both highly inter-connected). This explains why communism has taken such a foothold in Laos and Vietnam; the population is naturally collectivist and community based.  When an individual or family decides to follow Jesus Christ and become a Christian, the authorities don’t always need to overtly persecute the Christians from a government level, but instead stir up the village and other family members to pressure the new converts to give up their belief in Christ to keep peace in the village and to keep the animistic spirits from bringing bad fortune to the village.  To turn from the pressures of remaining within the village, family, and animistic society is incredibly difficult for an individual or family, doing so usually means being kicked out of one’s village or family permanently.

There is an official state recognized church in the major cities in Laos, but believers are not allowed to evangelize or engage in religious activities outside the church building, teach or preach on certain subjects, or distribute material like tracts, Bibles, or MP3 players.  Yet there is a thriving church among the Khmu and Hmong people. A number of years ago, the Khmu in Laos began coming to Christ in large numbers through a Christian radio program broadcast into Laos by the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC).  The Khmu were touched by what they heard, that someone loved and cared for them where they were at and did not speak condescendingly to them as if they were simple jungle people.  The gospel message and the love of Christ deeply touched these people as many tens of thousands came to faith in Jesus Christ.  There are now an estimated 70,000 Khmu Christians in Laos today.   As this revival in the Khmu people continues, many Khmu continue to come to Christ and grow in their faith through the FEBC radio broadcasts and through the follow up and discipleship by Khmu pastors and leaders.  One of the great stories now coming from Laos is that Khmu Christians are the ones bringing the gospel to other ethnic minorities.  In addition to the Khmu reaching out, these ethnic minorities are also approaching the Khmu asking to know about Christ and are seeking prayer!  They see what the Khmu have in Christ and would like that for their own lives.

In summary, being a Christian in Laos brings about tremendous pressure and persecution from all sides of society and government, especially if the Christian is from an ethnic minority group.


Vietnam

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Officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vietnam is the most populous country on the Indochina Peninsula with 97 million inhabitants. A Chinese province for over a thousand years, Vietnam became a monarchy in 938 AD and a became a French colony in 1862. Japan occupied Vietnam during WWII, and once Japan surrendered to the allies in August of 1945, France and the British sought to reassert order and control of the former French colony.  Led by the nationalist and communist Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communists began an insurgency for independence in 1946, leading to the end of French colonial rule in 1954, and the Indochina peninsula being divided in Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. During the 1950’s, North Vietnamese guerrillas began the fight to overthrow the South Vietnamese government with the increasing material and military support of the Soviet Union and China. During the late 1950’s through 1975, through its stated containment policy, The United States became embroiled in what came to be known in the west as the Vietnam War by supporting the South Vietnamese government against this Chinese and Soviet Union backed communist takeover by the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese completed their takeover of the south in April of 1975, and North and South Vietnam were merged to become the (current) Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July 1976.

Photo: Map of Vietnam | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam

Photo: Map of Vietnam | Public Domain | en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam

Vietnam is ethnically diverse with 54 ethnic group officially recognized by the government.  Of the 97 million inhabitants, 85.7% of the population is the ethnic majority Viet people[2].  The remaining 14.3% (13.9 million [3]) are the ethnic minority and hill tribe people like the Hmong and the Dao. The majority (81% [4]) of Vietnamese either practice animism, ancestor worship, or some combination of folk religion. While Catholicism had existed in Vietnam since 1533, Evangelical Protestantism was first introduced to Vietnam in 1911 by the Christian and Missionary Alliance Pastor Albert Benjamin Simpson in Đà Nẵng [5]. There are an estimated 1.6 million protestants in Vietnam, half of those Christians (770,000, according to 2014 estimates [6]) being hill tribe people groups like the Hmong. What this means is protestant Christianity has been widely adopted and is spreading at a rapid rate among the hill tribe people groups: one estimate places the number in recent decades at a 600% growth rate [7].

The story of the Hmong coming to embrace Christianity is tremendously compelling. The Hmong, like a number of other southeast Asian minorities and hill tribes, possessed no written script for their spoken language and therefore had no books for much of their history.  It wasn’t until the British missionary Samuel Pollard devised a script to represent the Hmong language at the turn of the 19th century that the Hmong were able to begin reading and writing. The Hmong themselves had an oral tradition as to why their people had no written language – they had been given a written language and had been given books at one point in their people’s history, but it had been lost (or taken away in other variations of the story) because of the people’s poor choices.  Some versions of the story describe that the Hmong were forced to eat their books because of their hunger as they fled the persecution of the Chinese.  Even though their books had been taken away, a promise was given that one day a book would be given back to them – a book which told of the one creator God of the universe (Vaj Tswv in Hmong).  This story had been told before the Hmong had encountered any western missionary.  William Hudspeth, in his book Stone Gateway and the Flowery Miao wonderfully describes this:

“Before the Pollard script, books and a library were unknown. The great majority of these tribesmen had never handled even a sheet of writing paper or a pen.  They had heard that once upon a time there were books: a tribal legend described how, long ago the Miao [Hmong] lived on the north side of the Yangtze River, but the conquering Chinese came and drove them from their lands and homes. Coming to the river and possessing no boats they debated what should be done with the books and in the end they strapped them to their shoulders and swam across, but the water ran so swiftly and the river was so wide, that the books were washed away and fishes swallowed them.

This was the story. When the British and foreign Bible Society sent the first gospels and these were distributed, the legend grew – the once upon a time lost books had been found, found in a white man’s country, and they told the incomparable story that Jesus loved the Miao [Hmong]. Only the imagination can conceive what this meant to these hillmen, some of whom traveled for days to view the books.” [8]

Illiteracy has been one of the tools traditionally used in the marginalization of the Hmong. As they were given a written script for their language - and then received an actual print Bible – many Hmong accepted the Bible as the promised (or Golden) book speaking of the one true creator God. The Hmong quickly received Christianity as their own religion.  As many Hmong have experienced marginalization with the surrounding Viet people and the ruling authorities, Christianity has provided an enhancing identity to their marginalization status, providing dignity and worth in a culture which counts them as lower than a dog. Said a different way, Christianity has provided an alternate way to remain Hmong without losing their unique identity by assimilation with surrounding cultures.[9] Christianity, and a relationship with the Lord Jesus has provided a way to escape the addictions many Hmong have found themselves gripped with, the addiction to their main cash crop, Opium.  Most of all, as the Hmong receive Christ and then receive God’s Word, the Hmong highly prize their physical Bibles as they receive it as the long-promised book which they once lost but was promised to be brought back to them from brothers and sisters from over the sea.

There has been a current revival among the White Hmong in Vietnam who began coming to the Lord in revival like numbers through a Gospel radio program broadcast into the country through the Far East Broadcasting Company’s (FEBC) Manila station in the late 1980’s by Hmong pastor Vam Txoob Lis (John Lee)[10].  There are numerous stories of Hmong living in North Vietnam coming across the gospel radio messages from the FEBC in their own language and being astonished at what they heard, as broadcasting in Hmong was forbidden by the Vietnamese government. These people heard the Gospel message about how they could be set free through Jesus Christ and that God loved the Hmong.  What these initial listeners heard and believed, they then shared with their fellow villagers and neighbors on a large, widespread scale.  As the revival and listening to the FEBC broadcasts spread in subsequent years in Vietnam, China, and Laos the number of Hmong becoming Christians rose to the hundreds of thousands and continues to this day. In northwest Vietnam alone, there was an estimated 1,000 Hmong believers in 1986, and the numbers have jump to 140,000 by 2014 [11].

Hill tribe Christians in Vietnam, like the Hmong, currently have three immense obstacles going against them.  In addition to being an ethnic minority – which entirely marginalizes them in the ruling government’s eyes – many Hmong also sided with the American military and CIA during the American war in Vietnam and Laos.  Additionally, Christianity is often seen as an American ploy to control people and overthrow the government.  The result: the Hmong have suffered tremendously and are considered the most distrusted and hated people group in these Southeast Asian countries. Yet the Hmong are still coming to the Lord in great numbers.  With so many Hmong coming to the Lord over the last 25 years, a problem exists which we see too often in our work in restricted nations: the great and growing need for Bibles for these marginalized and persecuted Christians. The Hmong are just too tightly restricted to get a reliable total count, but we can say with certainty there are many tens of thousands of Hmong Christians asking for a Bible.  During this time in human history, God has put us – western Christians – in the unique position to be the ones who can actually do something to help meet our brothers and sisters in Christ’s need.

Getting Bibles to the Hmong can be a slow and tedious effort due to the security restrictions and many more Hmong come to Christ as we work to get already existing Christians Bibles.  Yet the impact of a Bible for the Hmong is almost incalculable.  The reports from our contacts on the field are that when Hmong believers receive God’s Word and read it, their addictions to Opium are broken and they remain firm in their faith, even as they receive pressure to turn from Jesus from their non-Christian Hmong neighbors.  As in other restricted locations, one Bible is often shared with multiple family members.  Sometimes a Bible is broken up into pieces and shared with multiple members of a congregation, or even among multiple pastors.  This is one of the reasons why the print Bible remains the best means to meet the Hmong’s need for Bibles.


Notes


[1a] Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Fact Book, Burma, CIA.gov [home page on-line]; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html; accessed 21 August 2019.

[1b] Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Fact Book, Thailand, CIA.gov [home page on-line]; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/th.html; accessed 21 August 2019.

[1c] Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Fact Book, Laos, CIA.gov [home page on-line]; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html; accessed 21 August 2019.

[2] Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Fact Book, Vietnam, CIA.gov [home page on-line]; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/vm.html; accessed 21 August 2019.

[3] Ibid

[4] Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns", Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007), Retrieved online from the original (PDF) on 8/16/2019 at https://web.archive.org/web/20090612114443/http:/www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Ath-Chap-under-7000.pdf

[5] Van Hoang, Chung . "Evangelizing Post-Đổi Mới Vietnam: The Rise of Protestantism and the State's Response" . Perspective, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, Issue 2017, No. 34, ISSN 2335-6677. Retrieved online from the original (PDF) on 8/16/2019 at https://web.archive.org/web/20181014021910/https:/www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/ISEAS_Perspective_2017_34.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tapp, Nicholas. “The Impact of Missionary Christianity Upon Marginalized Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1989. 77.

[9] Ibid, 89.

[10] Ngo, Tam, “The 'short-waved' faith: Christian broadcasting and Protestant conversion of the Hmong in Vietnam”, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen.  Retrieved online 9/13/2015 at http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/documents/wp/WP_09-11_Ngo_Short-waved-Faith.pdf

[11] Van Hoang.