Theocracy’s Increase in Burma
This article continues the series reporting on the travels of the Watchtower Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, and his secretary, M. G. Henschel.
THE Rangoon airport is located at Mingaladon, several miles from the city. When we stepped out of the plane and into the waiting bus which drove us to the terminal building we saw no sign of any of the publishers and we wondered whether conditions in Burma had worsened and they had not been able to make the trip out. On account of the delay in the flight the brothers had been misinformed about the plane that had arrived and they were waiting inside to be advised when the Bangkok plane landed. The first our brothers saw of us was at 5:40 and they thought we would not arrive until 6, so all of us were surprised and glad to meet. The publishers related how two weeks earlier the insurgents in the country had blown up the water line and they were without water for some days. They were glad that things were now restored and the convention would not be affected. On the way to the meeting hall we passed a high barbed-wire fence with many guards on duty at the gates and we were informed that inside this compound lived the high officials of the government who had to be protected because of the war conditions in the country.
We were scheduled to speak to the convention already in session that evening and it surely was a delight to see the fine increase in the organization. In 1947 when we visited before there were only 19 publishers there and then we were meeting on the outskirts of the city in a little Kingdom Hall built of bamboo poles and covered with woven palm leaves. But now the company had grown and moved into the heart of the town, 106 Brooking street, one flight up. The hall was filled; 80 persons had assembled from various parts of Burma. Most of them were from the city of Rangoon itself because travel is difficult in Burma at the present time. Because the plane left Bangkok late the meeting was on when Brother Henschel and I walked into the hall. A round of applause came up when they saw us. They were happy that we had arrived. Brother Henschel talked first and a brother in Burmese attire was his interpreter. I was introduced and they sent up another interpreter, a sister who did very well and was very quick in expressing herself in the Burmese language. It would be rather difficult to have the same interpreter for both of us, because it is a task to take words into your head in English and bring Burmese words with the same meaning out of your mouth. After an hour or so of doing interpreting the interpreter is quite tired and relief is good. We appreciated their assistance, because many of those in the audience would not have been able to understand us if it had not been for the interpreters.
In 1947 when we were there they had an average of 17 publishers proclaiming the Kingdom message and there was only one Gilead graduate in the country at that time. Since then the Society was able to send in a few more and they have done excellent work. With the fine co-operation and help of the company publishers and a few local pioneers the new peak of 94 ministers was reached in Burma.
PUBLIC ADDRESSES IN RANGOON
The convention continued the next day. The big feature for Wednesday was the public meeting held in the City Hall. It is a large building right in the center of Rangoon, and up one flight is the big auditorium, cooled by ceiling fans. The officials had allowed the brothers to display a large banner on the front of the building to advertise the meeting. Additionally, many handbills had been distributed and newspapers had announced the meeting. We had seen an ad on the front page of a paper on the plane when we left Bangkok. The meeting was set for 6:30 p.m. That made it possible for those working to go to the meeting and then to their homes afterward. A fine crowd of 256 persons gathered to hear the lecture “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land”. This was not interpreted into Burmese, because the announcements given out were to the effect that the lecture would be given in English. The audience was unusually attentive and very anxious to hear about the freedom they would receive in the new world. All were invited to remain and after fifteen minutes’ intermission they heard Brother Henschel talk. A hundred persons stayed. Brother Henschel spoke while I went to the government radio station in Rangoon with some of the brothers who had arranged for me to give a fifteen-minute talk over the radio. The station was BBC, broadcasting on 7,500 watts power. On Wednesday evenings the station puts on an hour’s English program from 8:45 to 9:45. This follows a Burmese musical program which I heard at the radio station and it was most interesting. They were playing the native songs and they sound quite different from the American melodies. Not only does Burmese music use whole tones and half tones, but in Burma they break the music down to quarter tones. In other words, they have another note between their whole tones and sharps and flats. To the Burmese this is natural, but to an ear trained to hear the Western music the Eastern melodies are very enchanting but difficult to understand because of the odd tones that are so prominent in their music.
Just at the time I was to go on the air, Brother Henschel brought his talk to a close and Station BBC was tuned in at the City Hall. All sat and listened to the fifteen-minute discourse on the hopes of the people and what they could look forward to in a new world of righteousness. The brothers expressed afterward that they believed this broadcast would do much good, especially among the English-speaking Burmese, and they expected to find in the field-service work during the next few days many persons who listened to the program.
The convention continued the next day and ended with 90 persons coming to the closing meeting. After that we adjourned to the room above the hall where a little cafeteria had been set up, and in a way the convention continued with a sort of question-and-answer arrangement from 9 o’clock to 11. We had gone there for refreshments and we had them, but we also had brothers centered around us and we were bombarded with questions on various points. It showed that the publishers were interested in the truth and it was a pleasure to try to answer them from the Scriptures and to give them a clearer understanding on some issues that they did not have clearly in their minds. It was a most profitable evening.
Burma, like many other Eastern countries, is going through great troubles and has its full share of difficulties in the last days of this old world. During the second World War the Japanese swooped down over that land and caused great difficulties. Just about the time the people got over that war they clamored for independence and they gained it from the British. They set up their own democratic government for ruling. But as in every young nation it seems that there are many oppositionists, and now outside of the principal cities there are insurgents, as they call them, who are causing havoc, trying to break down the confidence of the people in the present government and trying to take over the reins of rulership. There is a great deal of disturbance in the territory to the north of Rangoon and train travel is really unsafe. Even though armed guards are put on the trains, when the trains are stopped by the bandits people are robbed and sometimes many of them are killed if resistance is put up. It seems from reports that people are safe enough in their villages and towns during the daytime, but when night comes fear comes with it because of the night raiders. It is difficult to get regular reports from the brothers in the north, but we learned that they were continuing faithful in preaching the good news as they had opportunity, and arrangements were made for the branch servant, Brother Richards, to fly to these points to visit the brothers. There is regular air service, and undoubtedly great comfort and help can be given to these brothers of ours by a visit from the branch representative. We were delighted to see a few of the publishers who made the trip from the north and to see their zeal for the service.
The missionaries gave us some very interesting experiences. Norman Barber, a graduate of Gilead, was telling that, when he goes to his territory in different parts of the city, rather than just getting on a bus or walking directly to his territory he usually carries on the magazine work or distribution of booklets. From block to block he talks to people as he has opportunity, witnessing to individuals, and he places numerous booklets in this manner. When checking his report it was observed that he had no difficulty in distributing four and five hundred booklets a month, most of this being during going to and from his territory. He has been able to arrange for a number of home Bible studies in this way.
Brother Smedstad, a missionary who is the assistant company servant, reports that he has great pleasure in taking publishers out in the field service in group witnessing five days a week. This keeps him very well occupied, but he has aided many in getting into the field service regularly and he is able too to train the weaker publishers in what to say when they go from door to door. In addition to this good work he has many Bible studies and arranges to call back on the people in the territories that he is working with the company publishers. The three missionaries, including the branch servant, are doing good work.
The missionaries are living on the third floor of a building that was bombed out during the last war and just recently was fixed up so it could be inhabited. As yet there are no windows in the building where they reside. They did not need them when we were there, because it was the dry season, but in two months the rains would fall, and not just lightly but in drenching torrents. So between now and the time that the rains fall they will have to put in glass windows; otherwise they might be flooded out of their third-floor apartment. It was a pleasure to eat most of our meals with them and talk over their problems as missionaries and discuss the branch work and the advancement of the Kingdom interests there.
For a long time the Society has been trying to get more missionaries into Burma, but the government there in its present anxiety, having plenty of problems to handle locally, does not see fit to allow any more missionaries to come in, at least not for the present. It may be when the internal distress of revolution on the part of some of the people settles down and the government brings peace and order that they will look upon the matter of bringing in foreign missionaries with greater favor. I sincerely hope so. It will depend a great deal upon the attitude toward the Buddhist religion, I know.
But even though we have only a few missionaries there they are supported by some special pioneers and regular company publishers and the organization appears to be strong and energetic and they ought to keep on preaching the good news, for that is their expressed desire. Undoubtedly the assembly just held will greatly stimulate the brothers to press onward and accomplish the work that Jehovah God wants done in all the world.
Our days in Burma were full to the limit from morning until night, talking with our brothers, and the visit was much too short. We did not have much time to see the things in the city, but one cannot miss the numerous golden pagodas of Buddhism rising above rooftops and the priests whose yellow robes are a slightly deeper shade than those of Thailand. The scars of war remain with Rangoon and there are numerous buildings of which only walls remain standing. On the ground floor of some of these, squatters have taken up residence, but there is always the possibility that part of the remaining walls will fall in and crush them. Streets and sidewalks are not fully restored to prewar standards. So the country suffers now from its internal strife and money is for military equipment, the big problem being attacked first.
The people of Rangoon are varied and interesting. Indians abound, some following the ancient traditions of dress with turban and dhotī and others using the conventional European styles. The Burmese wear a kind of sarong, which is said to be cooler than European clothing. The blouses the women wear are usually of nylon or silk, with bright buttons or precious stones on the front. They are very colorful. Quite a few Tibetan traders were in town and they looked quite out of place with their heavy clothing and warm hats and long hair, often braided and hanging down their backs. It was the first time we had seen people from Tibet in native dress.
WATER FESTIVAL DODGED
On Friday morning we rose early and ate our breakfast at the missionary home. As soon as we had walked out of the hotel to go to the missionary home, which was a block away, we spotted some young boys with their water guns ready to start off the children’s day of the water festival. The water festival does not go into full force the first day and this year’s first big day would be the 14th. The astrologers had announced that it would begin on Friday the 13th; but the stars evidently did not reveal to them the right story, and after further consultations it was announced in the newspapers that the water festival would begin on Saturday, the 14th, because the stars said so. That was all right with us. But even so the children always begin a day early. The last time we were in Burma we were in the middle of the water festival and they poured buckets of water upon us while we were riding in a jeep. This time in going to the airport we had a little more protection from the youngsters because we were in a sedan car and could turn up the glass windows. The car got a washing and if the windows had not been up the water surely would have landed on us, because the youngsters make some very excellent shots with their throwing of water and their water guns.
They go into this water festival in a big way. They set up bamboo and palm-leaf pavilions throughout the city. They fill barrels with water and people can come and get supplies for the drenching of others, all of which is a part of their belief that throwing water on the three days of the festival washes away the sins of the people. I was told that at some places they have not only a supply of water for throwing, but a bus may stop and the passengers are allowed a free drink flavored with some fruit. Of course, they may also be refreshed with a soaking with water at that time. It had made us smile at the last meeting of the assembly when the company servant announced that the Watchtower study for Sunday would be postponed until Tuesday because of the water festival. He had good reason, because the last time we were in Burma the brothers came to the meeting during the water festival and they had to bring extra clothing with them, wrapped in waterproof material, and then they changed clothes there at the Kingdom Hall before the meeting. But with such a large company coming to the meetings now it seemed advisable to allow the brothers to stay at home and not go out of the house during the water festival.
So we received a little bit of sprinkling on the car windows from the children, but the big three days when grownups go at it with very much vigor were to follow on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. They say that then somewhere in Burma they have rain during the festival and evidently their astrologers thought it better to move it back a day to be sure of rain. This water festival brings no life to the country, but it is later when the monsoons come to water the parched earth and the rice planting season begins.
At the airport that morning there were many of our brothers. We enjoyed a last farewell of shaking hands under the eyes of two watchful customs guards and then at 8:30 we boarded a bus that took us out on the field where our plane waited and we boarded the plane to make our way to Bangkok and our connections for Hong Kong.