NESTLED between Asian giants India and China, Myanmar is a land of fascinating contrasts.* Yangon (formerly called Rangoon), its largest city, boasts multistory buildings, crowded shops, and bustling traffic. But beyond Yangon lies a land of villages where water buffalo till the soil, people view foreigners with wonder, and time is measured in the passing of the seasons.
Myanmar today echoes the Asia of yesteryear. Here rickety buses bounce along potholed roads past oxcarts hauling crops to market and goatherds tending their flocks in the fields. Most Myanmar men still wear a traditional wraparound skirt (lungi). Women apply tree-bark paste (thanaka) to their faces as makeup. The people are deeply religious. Buddhist devotees revere monks more than celebrities and daily daub gold-leaf offerings on gleaming statues of the Buddha.
The people of Myanmar are gentle, considerate, and inquisitive. Eight major ethnic groups and at least 127 subgroups inhabit the country. Each group has its own distinctive language, dress, food, and culture. Most people live on a broad central plain nourished by the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, a 1,350-mile-long waterway winding from the icy Himalayas to the tepid Andaman Sea. Millions more inhabit a vast coastal delta and the arc of highlands bordering Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand.
For nearly 100 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Myanmar have built up a record of unwavering faith and endurance. During chaotic violence and political upheaval, they have maintained their neutrality. (John 17:14) Despite physical hardships, religious opposition, and limited contact with their international brotherhood, Jehovah’s people have tirelessly preached the good news of God’s Kingdom. The following account presents their heartwarming story.
For nearly 100 years, our brothers in Myanmar have built up a record of unwavering faith and endurance
Opening Up the Work
In the landmark year of 1914, two Englishmen stepped from a steamship into Yangon’s suffocating dockside heat. Hendry Carmichael and his pioneer partner had traveled from India to take on the challenging assignment of opening up the preaching work in Burma. Their territory included the whole country.
“By all means, if you want to get into the new world by proxy”
Starting in Yangon, Hendry and his partner soon met two Anglo-Indian men who showed genuine interest in the Kingdom message.* Bertram Marcelline and Vernon French promptly severed their connections with Christendom and began witnessing informally to their friends. Soon, about 20 people were meeting regularly at Bertram’s house to study the Bible with the aid of The Watch Tower.*
In 1928, another English pioneer from India, George Wright, visited Burma and toured the country for five months, distributing much Bible literature. Those seeds of truth doubtless included the 1920 booklet Millions Now Living Will Never Die!—the first of our Christian publications to be translated into Burmese.
Two years later, pioneers Claude Goodman and Ronald Tippin arrived in Yangon to find a small group of brothers faithfully holding meetings but not doing any organized preaching. “We encouraged the brothers to come witnessing each Sunday,” said Claude. “One brother asked if he could preach by proxy, by helping us pioneers financially. Ron told him: ‘By all means, if you want to get into the new world by proxy also.’” That plainspoken encouragement was just what the group needed. Soon Claude and Ronald had plenty of preaching partners.
“Rachel, I Have Found the Truth!”
That same year, Ron and Claude met Sydney Coote, a railway stationmaster in Yangon. Sydney accepted the so-called rainbow set, a collection of ten of our brightly colored books. After reading parts of one book, Sydney called to his wife, “Rachel, I have found the truth!” Soon the whole Coote family was serving Jehovah.
Sydney was a diligent student of the Scriptures. His daughter Norma Barber, a longtime missionary now serving at the Britain branch, explains: “My father compiled his own scripture-reference book. Whenever he found a scripture that explained a Bible teaching, he entered it in the book under a suitable heading. He called the book Where Is It?”
Sydney not only wanted to study the Bible but also wanted to share its message with others. Accordingly, he wrote to the India branch to ask if there were any Witnesses in Burma. Soon he received a large crate of literature and a list of names. “Father wrote to each person on the list, inviting him to visit us for a day,” says Norma. “Five or six brothers later came to our home and showed us how to witness informally. My parents lost no time in distributing the literature to friends and neighbors. They also sent letters and literature to all of our relatives.”
When Daisy D’Souza, Sydney’s sister who lived in Mandalay, received Sydney’s letter and the booklet The Kingdom, the Hope of the World, she immediately wrote back asking for more publications and a Bible. “My mother was beside herself with joy as she delved into the literature until the early hours of the morning,” said her daughter Phyllis Tsatos. “She then gathered us six children together for a dramatic announcement: ‘I am leaving the Catholic Church, for I have found the truth!’” Later, Daisy’s husband and children also accepted the truth. Today, four generations of the D’Souza family are faithfully serving Jehovah God.
By the early 1930’s, zealous pioneers were spreading the good news along the main northern railway line running from Yangon to Myitkyina, a town near the China border. They also preached in Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Sittwe (Akyab), coastal towns east and west of Yangon. As a result, small congregations sprang up in Mawlamyine and Mandalay.
In 1938 oversight of the work in Burma passed from the India branch to the Australia branch, and pioneers from Australia and New Zealand began arriving in Burma. Those stalwart workers included Fred Paton, Hector Oates, Frank Dewar, Mick Engel, and Stuart Keltie. All these brothers were pioneers in the true sense of the word.
Fred Paton related: “During my four years in Burma, I preached throughout most of the country. Along the way, I endured malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and other health problems. After a long day in service, I often had no place to sleep. Yet, Jehovah always cared for my needs and kept me going by the power of his spirit.” Frank Dewar, a hardy New Zealander, said: “I encountered bandits, insurgents, and bombastic officials. But I found that even difficult obstacles usually melted away if I was polite, gentle, humble, and reasonable. Most people soon realized that Jehovah’s Witnesses are harmless.”
The pioneers stood in stark contrast to the expatriate population, who generally treated the local people with disdain. The pioneers treated people with respect and love. Their kindly approach appealed to the humble Burmese, who favor gentleness and subtlety over directness and confrontation. Through their words and deeds, the pioneers showed that Jehovah’s Witnesses are true Christians.—John 13:35.
A Landmark Convention
Several months after the pioneers arrived, the Australia branch arranged to hold a convention in Yangon. The venue chosen was Yangon City Hall, a palatial building with marble staircases and huge bronze doors. Convention delegates came from Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, while Alex MacGillivray, the Australia branch servant, brought a group of brothers from Sydney.
With war clouds on the horizon, the widely advertised public talk entitled “Universal War Near” aroused intense public interest. “I never saw a hall fill so fast,” said Fred Paton. “When I opened the front doors, hordes of people stampeded up the stairs and into the auditorium. In less than ten minutes, over 1,000 people crammed into the 850-seat hall.” “We had to close the front doors on the surging crowd, leaving another 1,000 people outside,” added Frank Dewar. “Even then, some enterprising young men slipped in through small side doors.”
The brothers were thrilled not only by the level of interest shown but also by the diversity of the audience, which included many local ethnic groups. Up until then, very few local people had shown interest in the truth, since most of them were devout Buddhists. Those locals who were nominal Christians—mostly Kayins (Karens), Kachins, and Chins—lived in remote areas barely touched by the good news. It appeared that the indigenous field was ripe for harvesting. Soon the multinational “great crowd” foretold in the Bible would also include Burma’s many ethnic groups.—Rev. 7:9.
First Kayin Disciples
In 1940 a pioneer named Ruby Goff was preaching in Insein, a small town on the outskirts of Yangon. Finding little interest that day, Ruby prayed, “Jehovah, please let me find just one ‘sheep’ before I go home.” At the very next house, she met Hmwe Kyaing, a Kayin Baptist, who readily listened to the Kingdom message. Soon, Hmwe Kyaing and her daughters, Chu May (Daisy) and Hnin May (Lily), were studying the Bible and making good spiritual progress. Although Hmwe Kyaing died soon afterward, Lily, the younger daughter, later became the first Kayin to be baptized as a Witness of Jehovah. Daisy was also baptized.
Lily and Daisy became zealous pioneers and left a lasting legacy. Today, hundreds of their descendants and Bible students serve Jehovah in Myanmar and overseas.
Struggles During World War II
In 1939, World War II had broken out in Europe, sending shock waves around the world. Amid the growing war hysteria, Christendom’s clergy in Burma intensified its pressure on the colonial government to ban our literature. In response, Mick Engel, who cared for the literature depot in Yangon, approached a senior U.S. official and obtained a letter of authority to transport about two tons of literature on army trucks over the Burma Road to China.
Fred Paton and Hector Oates took the literature to the railhead at Lashio, a town near the Chinese border. When they met with the official controlling the convoy to China, he nearly had a fit! “What?” he shouted. “How can I give you precious space in my trucks for your miserable tracts when I have absolutely no room for urgently needed military and medical supplies rotting here in the open?” Fred paused, extracted the letter of authority from his briefcase, and informed the official that it would be a very serious matter if he ignored an official order from Yangon. At that, the road controller placed a lightweight truck, with a driver and supplies, at the brothers’ disposal. They traveled some 1,500 miles to Chongqing (Chungking), in south-central China, where they distributed the precious literature and even personally witnessed to Chiang Kai-shek, the president of the Chinese Nationalist government.
When the authorities arrived, the literature was gone
Finally, in May 1941, the colonial government in India cabled Yangon, ordering the local authorities to seize our literature. Two brothers working in the cable office saw the telegram and quickly told Mick Engel. Mick called Lily and Daisy and hurried to the depot, where they loaded up the remaining 40 cartons of literature and hid them in safe houses around Yangon. When the authorities arrived, the literature was gone.
On December 11, 1941, four days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombs began raining down on Burma. That weekend a small group of Witnesses assembled in a tiny apartment above the Yangon Central Railway Station. It was there that after a dignified Scriptural discussion, Lily was solemnly baptized in a household bathtub.
Twelve weeks later, the Japanese army entered Yangon to find the city all but deserted. More than a hundred thousand people had fled toward India. Thousands died along the way, from hunger, exhaustion, and disease. Sydney Coote, who fled with his family, died of cerebral malaria near the Indian border. Another brother was shot by Japanese soldiers, while yet another lost his wife and family when their home was bombed.
Only a handful of Witnesses remained in Burma. Lily and Daisy moved to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), a quiet hillside town near Mandalay, where they sowed seeds of truth that later bore fruit. A third Witness, Cyril Gay, settled in Thayarwaddy, a tiny village some 60 miles north of Yangon, where he quietly lived out the remainder of the war.
A Joyful Reunion
When the war ended, most of the brothers and sisters who had fled to India began returning to Burma. By April 1946 the Yangon Congregation had eight active publishers. At the end of the year, when the congregation had grown to 24 publishers, the brothers decided to hold an assembly.
The two-day assembly was held at a school in Insein. “I returned from India to find that I was to deliver the hour-long public address,” recalled Theo Syriopoulos, who learned the truth in Yangon in 1932. “Up until then, I had given only two five-minute talks at meetings in India. The assembly, however, was a great success, and over 100 people attended.”
A few weeks later, a Kayin community leader who was interested in the truth offered the congregation a block of land in Ahlone, a riverside suburb near the center of Yangon. There the brothers built a bamboo Kingdom Hall with seating for about a hundred people. The congregation was bubbling over with joy. The brothers and sisters had survived the war with their faith intact and were ready and eager to press on with the preaching work.
First Gilead Missionaries Arrive
Early in 1947, a group of excited brothers gathered at the Yangon docks to welcome Robert Kirk, the first Gilead-trained missionary to enter Burma. Soon afterward, three more missionaries arrived—Norman Barber, Robert Richards, and Hubert Smedstad—along with Frank Dewar, who had pioneered in India during the war.
The missionaries had arrived in a city ravaged by war. Countless buildings were burned-out shells. Thousands of people lived in flimsy bamboo huts that lined the roads. People cooked, washed, and lived in the streets. Yet, the missionaries had come to teach Bible truth, so they adjusted to the conditions and got busy in the ministry.
On September 1, 1947, a branch office of the Watch Tower Society was established at the missionary home on Signal Pagoda Road, near the heart of the city. Robert Kirk was assigned as branch overseer. Soon afterward, the Yangon Congregation moved from the bamboo hall in Ahlone to an upstairs apartment on Bogalay Zay Street. This was just a few minutes’ walk from the Secretariat, a majestic edifice housing the British colonial government—an administration whose days were numbered!
Civil War Erupts!
On January 4, 1948, the British handed over power to the new Burmese government. After 60 years of colonial rule, Burma was independent. But the country was engulfed in civil war.
Various ethnic groups fought to establish independent states, while private armies and criminal gangs vied for areas of control. By early 1949, rebel forces controlled most of the country, and fighting broke out on the outskirts of Yangon.
While the battles ebbed and flowed, the brothers preached cautiously. The branch office was transferred from the missionary home on Signal Pagoda Road to a large upstairs apartment on 39th Street, a secure area housing several foreign embassies and just a three-minute walk from the general post office.
The Burmese army slowly asserted its authority, driving the rebels into the mountains. By the mid-1950’s, the government had regained control of much of the country. However, the civil war was far from over. It has continued in one form or another down to the present day.
Preaching and Teaching in Burmese
Up until the mid-1950’s, the brothers in Burma preached almost entirely in English, the language spoken by educated people in the larger towns and cities. But millions more spoke only Burmese (Myanmar), Kayin, Kachin, Chin, or other local languages. How could they be reached with the good news?
In 1934, Sydney Coote arranged for a Kayin schoolteacher to translate several booklets into Burmese and Kayin. Later, other publishers translated the book “Let God Be True” and several booklets into Burmese. Then, in 1950, Robert Kirk invited Ba Oo to translate study articles from The Watchtower into Burmese. The handwritten translations were typeset and printed by commercial printers in Yangon and then distributed to those who attended congregation meetings. Later, the branch office purchased a Burmese typewriter to speed up the translation process.
Those early translators faced numerous challenges. “I worked to support my family by day and then translated articles late into the night under a dim electric bulb,” recalls Naygar Po Han, who took over translation when Ba Oo was no longer able to do it. “My knowledge of English was very limited, so the resulting translation must have been quite inaccurate. But we desperately wanted our magazines to reach as many people as possible.” When Robert Kirk asked Doris Raj to translate The Watchtower into Burmese, she was so overwhelmed that she broke down and cried. “I had only a basic education and no translation experience,” explains Doris. “Yet, Brother Kirk encouraged me to try. So I prayed to Jehovah and set to work.” Today, nearly 50 years later, Doris still works as a translator at Yangon Bethel. Naygar Po Han, now 93, is also at Bethel and is as enthusiastic as ever about advancing the Kingdom work.
In 1956, Nathan Knorr from world headquarters visited Burma and announced the release of The Watchtower in Burmese. He also urged the missionaries to learn the language so that they could preach more effectively. Encouraged by his remarks, the missionaries intensified their efforts to learn Burmese. The following year, Frederick Franz, another visitor from world headquarters, was the keynote speaker at a five-day assembly held at the Yangon Railway Institute Hall. He encouraged the brothers to expand the preaching work yet further by sending out pioneers into regional cities and towns. The first area to benefit from the new pioneers was Burma’s former capital and second-largest city, Mandalay.
Fruitage in Mandalay
Early in 1957, six new special pioneers arrived in Mandalay, joining newlywed missionary Robert Richards and his Kayin wife, Baby, who were already there. The pioneers found the city to be a challenging territory. Mandalay is a major center of Buddhism and home to about half of Burma’s Buddhist monks. Still, the pioneers realized that as in ancient Corinth, Jehovah had “many people in this city.”—Acts 18:10.
One such person was Robin Zauja, a 21-year-old Kachin student, who recalls: “Early one morning, Robert and Baby Richards called at my home and introduced themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses. They said that they were declaring the good news from house to house, in line with Jesus’ command to preach. (Matt. 10:11-13) They presented their message and gave me their address, along with several magazines and books. I picked up one of the books that evening and read all night until I had finished it by sunrise. That same day, I went to Robert’s home and plied him with questions for several hours. He answered every question from the Bible.” Robin Zauja soon became the first Kachin to accept the truth. Later, he served for years as a special pioneer in northern Burma, helping nearly a hundred people learn the truth. Two of his children now serve at Yangon Bethel.
Another zealous disciple was Pramila Galliara, a 17-year-old girl who had recently learned the truth in Yangon. “My father, a member of the Jain religion, was bitterly opposed to my newfound faith,” says Pramila. “He twice burned my Bible and Bible literature, and several times he beat me in public. He also locked me up at home to stop me from attending Christian meetings, and he even threatened to burn down Brother Richards’ house! But when he saw that he could not break my faith, he slowly stopped opposing me.” Leaving her university studies, Pramila became a zealous pioneer and later married circuit overseer Dunstan O’Neill. Since then, she has helped 45 people into the truth.
While the work moved ahead in Mandalay, the branch office also dispatched missionaries or pioneers to other regional centers, including Pathein (Bassein), Kalaymyo, Bhamaw, Myitkyina, Mawlamyine, and Myeik (Mergui). Jehovah clearly blessed the work, as each of these towns developed strong congregations.
As the preaching work continued to expand, rising political and ethnic tensions slowly pushed the country toward the breaking point. Finally, in March 1962 the army took over the government. Hundreds of thousands of Indians and Anglo-Indians were deported to India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), and visiting foreigners could obtain 24-hour visas only. Burma was shutting its doors to the outside world.
The brothers watched these developments with growing unease. The military government guaranteed freedom of worship, but only if religions kept out of politics. True to form, Christendom’s missionaries continued to meddle in political affairs. Finally, by May 1966, the government had had enough—it ordered all foreign missionaries to leave the country! Witness missionaries had been scrupulously nonpolitical; yet they too were soon deported.
The local brothers were shocked but not disheartened. They knew that Jehovah God was with them. (Deut. 31:6) Still, some brothers wondered how the Kingdom work would continue.
Jehovah’s guiding hand soon became evident. Maurice Raj, a former circuit overseer who had received some training at the branch, was quickly appointed to look after the branch office. An ethnic Indian, Maurice had not been deported with the Indian population. “Several years earlier, I had applied for Burmese citizenship,” he explains. “But I lacked the 450 kyats* needed to pay for my citizenship book, so I put the matter off. Then one day while I was passing the office of the company that had employed me years earlier, my former boss saw me. He cried out: ‘Hey, Raj, come and get your money. You forgot to collect your provident fund when you left.’ It amounted to 450 kyats.
“As I left the office, I thought of all the things I could do with 450 kyats. But since it was exactly the amount needed to get my citizenship book, I felt that it was Jehovah’s will that I use it for that purpose. And that choice proved to be most beneficial. While other Indians were expelled from Burma, I could remain in the country, travel freely, import literature, and carry out other duties vital to our preaching work, all because I was a Burmese citizen.”
Along with Dunstan O’Neill, Maurice set out on a nationwide tour to encourage each congregation and isolated group. “We told the brothers: ‘Don’t worry, Jehovah is with us. If we are loyal to him, he will help us,’” says Maurice. “And Jehovah did help us! Soon many new special pioneers were appointed, and the preaching work expanded even more rapidly.”
Today, some 46 years later, Maurice, a member of the Branch Committee, still travels throughout Myanmar to strengthen the congregations. Like elderly Caleb in ancient Israel, his zeal for God’s work remains undiminished.—Josh. 14:11.
Expanding Into Chin State
One of the first areas to receive special pioneers was Chin State, a mountainous region bordering Bangladesh and India. This area is home to many professed Christians, a legacy of Baptist missionaries of the British colonial period. Thus, most Chin people hold the Bible and Bible teachers in high regard.
Toward the end of 1966, Lal Chhana, a former soldier but now a special pioneer, arrived in Falam, then the largest town in Chin State. There he was joined by Dunstan and Pramila O’Neill and Than Tum, another former soldier who had recently been baptized. These zealous workers located several interested families and soon established a small but active congregation.
The following year, Than Tum moved to Hakha, a town south of Falam, where he started pioneering and established a small group. He later went on to preach throughout Chin State and helped to establish congregations in Vanhna and Surkhua, as well as in Gangaw and other areas. Today, 45 years later, Than Tum remains active as a special pioneer in his home village, Vanhna.
When Than Tum left Hakha, Donald Dewar, a 20-year-old special pioneer, took his place. Because Donald’s parents, Frank and Lily (formerly Lily May) Dewar, had recently been deported, Donald’s 18-year-old brother, Samuel, joined him there. “We lived in a small tin hut that was stifling in summer and freezing in winter,” says Donald. “Yet, I found that loneliness was a greater challenge. I regularly worked alone in service and could barely speak the local language, Hakha Chin. Only Samuel and I and one or two other publishers attended the meetings. Gradually, I became depressed and even gave thought to leaving my assignment.
“About that time, I read a stirring Yearbook account about our brothers in Malawi staying faithful under brutal persecution.* I asked myself, ‘If I can’t bear loneliness, how would I endure persecution?’ I poured out my concerns to Jehovah in prayer and started to feel relief. I also gained strength from reading and meditating on the Bible and on articles in The Watchtower. When I received a surprise visit from Maurice Raj and Dunstan O’Neill, I felt as if I were seeing two angels! Slowly but surely, I regained my joy.”
Later, while serving as a traveling overseer, Donald drew on his experience to encourage other isolated Witnesses. His efforts in Hakha also bore fruit. Hakha now boasts a thriving congregation and regularly hosts Christian assemblies and conventions. Two of the publishers who attended meetings in Hakha, Johnson Lal Vung and Daniel Sang Kha, became zealous special pioneers who helped spread the good news throughout much of Chin State.
‘Walking Up Mountains’
Chin State lies 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level with some peaks soaring up to 10,000 feet. Many mountains are covered with dense forests filled with towering teaks, stately conifers, colorful rhododendrons, and exquisite orchids. The terrain is wild and majestic and makes for rough travel. Towns in the region are linked by winding dirt roads that are barely passable when wet and often severed by landslides. Many remote villages are accessible only on foot. These obstacles, however, have not deterred Jehovah’s servants, who are determined to reach as many people as possible with the good news.
Aye Aye Thit, who served with her husband in the circuit work in Chin State, relates: “I grew up in the flat Ayeyarwady Delta and was awestruck by the beautiful Chin Hills. I hiked up my first mountain with gusto, only to collapse out of breath at the top of the hill. Several hills later, I was so exhausted that I thought I would die. Eventually, I learned how to walk up mountains—by taking my time and conserving my strength. Soon I could walk up to 20 miles a day on journeys lasting six days or more.”
Over the years, the brothers in Chin State have used various forms of transport, including mule, horse, bicycle and, only recently, motorbike, passenger truck, and four-wheel-drive vehicle. But mostly, they walk. To reach the villages surrounding Matupi, for example, special pioneers Kyaw Win and David Zama trudged countless miles up and down mountains. In order to attend Christian conventions in Hakha, over 170 miles away, the Matupi Congregation walked for six to eight days going there and six to eight days coming back. Along the way, they sang Kingdom songs that echoed through the picturesque hills.
Those grueling journeys exposed the brothers not only to harsh mountain weather but to swarms of mosquitoes and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, especially during the rainy season. “While walking through the forest, I saw leeches crawling up my legs,” relates Myint Lwin, a circuit overseer. “When I tore them off, two more climbed up. I jumped onto a fallen tree, but swarms of leeches started crawling up the log. Terrified, I sprinted through the forest. When I finally reached the road, I was covered with leeches.”
However, travelers in Chin State braved more than leeches. Myanmar also has wild boars, bears, leopards, tigers and, according to some sources, a greater variety of venomous snakes than any other country in the world. When hiking between congregations in Chin State, district overseer Gumja Naw and his wife, Nan Lu, built a ring of fires at night to keep wild animals at bay!
Those tireless evangelizers left a lasting legacy. “They served Jehovah with all of their strength,” says Maurice Raj. “Even after they left Chin State, they were willing to return. Their efforts truly glorified Jehovah!” Today, despite being one of the most sparsely populated regions in the country, Chin State has seven congregations and several isolated groups.
“No ‘Sheep’ in Myitkyina”
In 1966 several special pioneers arrived in Myitkyina, a small picturesque town tucked into a sweeping bend of the Ayeyarwady River in Kachin State, near China. Six years earlier, Robert and Baby Richards had preached there briefly. They reported: “There are no ‘sheep’ in Myitkyina.” Yet, the new pioneers found people hungering for the truth.
One such person was Mya Maung, a 19-year-old Baptist who was praying to God for help to understand the Bible. He relates: “When a pioneer called on me at my place of work and offered me a Bible study, I was overjoyed. I felt that it was an answer to my prayers. My younger brother, San Aye, and I studied twice a week, and we made rapid spiritual progress.
“We were helped along by an excellent teacher—Wilson Thein. Rather than simply telling us what to do, he showed us! Through practice sessions and demonstrations, we learned to use the Bible effectively, preach with boldness, deal with opposition, and prepare and deliver congregation talks. Wilson Thein listened to us rehearse each talk and gave us suggestions on how to improve. His kindly training motivated us to reach out for spiritual goals.
“Today, the railway towns of Namti, Hopin, Mohnyin, and Katha all have thriving congregations”
“In 1968, San Aye and I started pioneering, bringing the number of pioneers in Myitkyina to eight. Our first Bible students included our mother and seven of our siblings, all of whom eventually accepted the truth. We also preached in the towns and villages along the Myitkyina-Mandalay railway on journeys that lasted from one to three days. The seeds that we planted later bore fruit. Today, the railway towns of Namti, Hopin, Mohnyin, and Katha all have thriving congregations.”
While working business territory in Myitkyina, San Aye met Phum Ram, a Kachin Baptist who worked in a government office. Phum Ram accepted the truth eagerly and moved to Putao, a small town at the foot of the Himalayas. There he preached to his many relatives, and soon 25 people were attending Christian meetings. While serving as a pioneer, Phum Ram helped his wife and seven children and many relatives learn the truth. He now serves as a pioneer and an elder in Myitkyina.
Missing Railway Coaches
The rapid spiritual growth in Kachin State prompted the branch office to hold the 1969 “Peace on Earth” International Assembly in Myitkyina instead of Yangon, the usual location. To transport convention delegates from Yangon to Myitkyina, more than 700 miles to the north, the branch asked Burma Railways for permission to charter six railway coaches. This request was highly unusual. Kachin State was an insurgency hot spot, and movement in and out of the area was tightly controlled. Yet, to the brothers’ surprise, the railway authorities readily agreed to their request.
On the day that the convention train was scheduled to arrive in Myitkyina, Maurice Raj and a group of brothers went to the railway station to welcome the delegates. Maurice relates: “While we were waiting, the stationmaster rushed up and told us that a telegram had just arrived stating that the authorities had unhooked the six coaches carrying our delegates, leaving them stranded between Mandalay and Myitkyina. Apparently, the train could not pull the extra coaches uphill.
“What could we do? Our first thought was to reschedule the convention. But that would mean applying for another set of permits, which would take weeks! Just as we were praying fervently to Jehovah, the train pulled into the station. We could not believe our eyes—all six coaches were filled with our brothers! They were smiling and waving. When we asked what had happened, one of them explained, ‘They did disconnect six coaches, but not our six!’”
‘They disconnected six coaches, but not our six!’
The Myitkyina convention was an outstanding success. During the program, three new publications were released in Burmese and five in English. Three years earlier when the missionaries had been expelled, the flow of spiritual food entering Burma slowed to a trickle. Now that trickle had turned into a flood!
Teaching the Nagas
Four months after the Myitkyina convention, the branch office received a letter from a postal clerk in Khamti, a riverside town situated below lofty hills lining the northwest Burma-India border. This area is the home of the Naga people, a collection of diverse tribes who were once fearsome headhunters. In his letter, the clerk, Ba Yee, a former Seventh Day Adventist, asked for spiritual help. The branch office promptly dispatched two special pioneers, Aung Naing and Win Pe.
Win Pe relates: “At the Khamti airstrip, we were unnerved to see fierce Naga warriors standing about girded only in loincloths. Then Ba Yee rushed forward to greet us and whisked us off to meet some interested ones. Soon we were studying with five people.
“The local authorities, however, mistook us for Baptist pastors with links to local insurgents. Despite our assurance that we were politically neutral, they ordered us to leave the area less than a month after we had arrived.”
Three years later, when new officials were in place, Biak Mawia, an 18-year-old pioneer, picked up where the previous pioneers had left off. Soon, Ba Yee resigned from the post office and started pioneering. Then several other pioneers arrived. This zealous group soon established a congregation in Khamti and several smaller groups in nearby villages. Biak Mawia recalls: “The Naga brothers and sisters were uneducated and illiterate. But they loved God’s Word and were zealous preachers who skillfully used the pictures in our publications. They also memorized many scriptures and learned the Kingdom songs by heart.”
Today, district conventions are regularly held in Khamti, with delegates attending from as far south as Homalin, a town 15 hours away by riverboat.
Opposition in the “Golden Triangle”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the work was also expanding into the highlands bordering China, Laos, and Thailand. This is the heart of the Golden Triangle, a beautiful region of rolling hills and fertile valleys marred by opium production, insurrection, and other illegal activities. The pioneers bringing the truth to this volatile region were cautious and discreet. (Matt. 10:16) Yet, their preaching work was unfailingly opposed by one group—Christendom’s clergy!
When pioneers Robin Zauja and David Abraham arrived in Lashio, a bustling town in Shan State, the local clergy promptly denounced them as insurgents. Robin said: “We were arrested and carted off to prison, where we presented our ministerial documentation to the police. Before long, an army major walked in. ‘Hello Mr. Zauja,’ he called out. ‘I see that Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to Lashio!’ The major, an old schoolmate of mine, immediately set us free.”
The two pioneers set to work and soon established a sizable congregation. Then they built a Kingdom Hall. Two years later, they were summoned to the local government headquarters where more than 70 military officials, tribal leaders, and clergy had assembled. “The clergy angrily accused us of pressuring people to give up their religious traditions,” recalled Robin. “When the meeting chairman called for our response, I asked if I could use the Bible in my defense. He agreed. I quickly said a silent prayer and then explained the Bible’s position on false religious traditions, military service, and nationalistic ceremonies. When I finished, the chairman rose and declared that Burma’s law allowed all religions to worship freely. We were released and allowed to continue preaching, much to the clergy’s disappointment.”
Later, in Mongpaw, a small village near the China border, an enraged mob of Baptists burned down a Kingdom Hall. When their vile act failed to intimidate the local Witnesses, the mob burned down the home of a special pioneer and began terrorizing brothers and sisters in their homes. The brothers appealed to the area ruler, but he backed the Baptists. Finally, however, the government intervened and granted the brothers permission to build a new Kingdom Hall—not on the original site at the edge of the village, but right in the center of the village!
Further south, in Leiktho, a remote mountain village in Kayin State, bordering the Golden Triangle, Gregory Sarilo encountered stiff opposition from the Catholic Church. “The village priest ordered his flock to destroy my vegetable garden,” relates Gregory. “Then they gave me gifts of food, but a friend warned me that the food was poisoned. One day, the priest’s henchmen asked me which road I would take the following day. That day I walked on a different road and thus avoided their efforts to ambush and kill me. When I reported these attempts on my life, the authorities sternly ordered the priest and his followers to leave me alone. Jehovah protected me from those ‘hunting for my soul.’”—Ps. 35:4.
Maintaining Strict Neutrality
Over the years, the brothers and sisters in Burma have had their integrity challenged in another noteworthy way. Ethnic wars and political strife have often tested their Christian neutrality.—John 18:36.
In the southern town of Thanbyuzayat, the western terminus of the infamous World War II Burma-Thailand “Death Railway,” special pioneer Hla Aung found himself surrounded by the fighting that was taking place between separatist insurgents and government forces. “Soldiers raided villages at night to round up the men and march them off at gunpoint to serve as military porters,” he explains. “Many were never seen again. One night, soldiers began to raid our village while Donald Dewar and I were talking at my house. My wife quickly yelled out a warning, allowing us time to flee into the forest. After that narrow escape, I built a secret hiding place in my home, where I could quickly take cover if we were raided again.”
When special pioneer Rajan Pandit arrived in Dawei, a town south of Thanbyuzayat, he soon started several Bible studies in a nearby village that was an insurgent stronghold. “While returning from the village, I was arrested and beaten by soldiers who accused me of being in league with the insurgents,” he relates. “When I told them that I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they demanded to know how I had come to Dawei. I showed them my plane ticket—which I had kept as a souvenir. It proved that I had arrived by plane, a mode of travel never used by insurgents. I was spared further beatings and was eventually released. The soldiers, however, interrogated one of my Bible students, who confirmed that we had only studied the Bible. After that, the soldiers left me alone and some even became part of my magazine route.”
Sometimes town officials tried to pressure the brothers to compromise their neutrality by voting in elections or by sharing in nationalistic ceremonies. When officials in Zalun, a riverside town about 80 miles north of Yangon, pressured local Witnesses to vote in an election, the brothers stood firm, citing the Bible as their authority. (John 6:15) The officials appealed to the regional authorities. But the regional authorities were well-aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral. The brothers were readily exempted from the election process.
When 23 Witness children in Khampat, a town on the Burma-India border, refused to bow to the national flag, the local headmistress expelled them from school. She then summoned two elders to appear before a large group of officials, including the town magistrate and the military commander. “As we explained the Scriptural reasons for our position, some of the officials were clearly hostile,” says Paul Khai Khan Thang, one of the elders. “Then we showed them a copy of a government decree stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses are permitted to ‘stand quietly and respectfully during flag ceremonies.’ The officials were stunned. When they recovered, the military commander ordered the headmistress to reinstate the expelled students. The headmistress also distributed copies of the decree to each school department.”
Today, officials at the highest levels of the Myanmar government are familiar with the political neutrality of Jehovah’s Witnesses. By standing firm for Bible principles, Jehovah’s servants have given a fine witness, just as Jesus Christ foretold.—Luke 21:13.
Military Personnel Become Christians
Throughout Myanmar’s turbulent modern history, many of its citizens have served in the military or fought as insurgents. Like the first-century Roman army officer Cornelius, some of them are ‘devout and God-fearing.’ (Acts 10:2) Upon learning the truth, they work hard to bring their lives into harmony with Jehovah’s righteous standards.
Freed from the chains of hate, these two men were now united by bonds of love, thanks to the liberating power of God’s Word
One such person is Hlawn Mang, a former petty officer in the navy who learned the truth while stationed in Mawlamyine. “I wanted to start preaching right away,” he explains. “But just as I was about to resign from the military, I learned that I was being considered for a promotion and a military scholarship to a school in a rich Western country! Yet, I was determined to share in God’s work. To the amazement of my superiors, I submitted my resignation and started serving Jehovah. Today, some 30 years later, I am still convinced that I made the right choice. What could compare with the privilege of serving the true God?”
La Bang Gam was convalescing in a military hospital when Robin Zauja showed him the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained.* La Bang Gam was enthralled by the book and asked if he could keep it. But since it was Robin’s only copy, he agreed to lend it to La Bang Gam for just one night. The next day, when Robin returned, La Bang Gam exclaimed: “Here is your book. I now have my own copy!” He had stayed up all night to copy the entire 250-page book into several notebooks! Soon afterward, La Bang Gam left the military and used his “Paradise” book to help many others learn the truth.
In mountainous Shan State, Sa Than Htun Aung, a captain in the Burmese army, and Aik Lin, a commander in the United Wa State Army, fought on opposing sides in several fierce jungle battles. When the armies finally negotiated a cease-fire, both men settled in Shan State. Later, they separately learned the truth, resigned their military commissions, and got baptized. These two former enemies met at a circuit assembly, and they warmly embraced as Christian brothers! Freed from the chains of hate, they were now united by bonds of love, thanks to the liberating power of God’s Word.—John 8:32; 13:35.
Reasoning With “All Sorts of Men”
Between 1965 and 1976, the number of publishers in Burma grew by over 300 percent. Most of the new ones who responded favorably to the Witnesses’ preaching efforts came out of Christendom. Yet, the brothers knew that God’s will is that “all sorts of men should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) Accordingly, from the mid-1970’s onward, they intensified their efforts to preach to Burma’s many other religious believers, including Buddhists, Hindus, and animists.
There were numerous challenges. Buddhists do not accept a personal God or Creator, Hindus worship millions of gods, and Burma’s animists revere powerful spirits called nats. Superstition, divination, and spiritism abound in these religions. And while most devotees view the Bible as a holy book, they usually know little or nothing about Bible characters, history, culture, and concepts.
The brothers, however, knew that the powerful truths in God’s Word can touch any human heart. (Heb. 4:12) They simply needed to rely on God’s spirit and use the “art of teaching”—that is, sound reasoning that appeals to people’s hearts and motivates them to make changes in their lives.—2 Tim. 4:2.
Consider, for example, how Rosaline, a long-time special pioneer, uses sound reasoning when speaking with Buddhists. She explains: “When Buddhists are taught that there is a Creator, they often ask, ‘But who created the Creator?’ Buddhists view animals as reincarnated humans, so I reason with them using their pets as an example.
“‘Does a pet know that its owner exists?’ I ask.
“‘But is it aware of its owner’s job, marriage, or background?’
“‘Likewise, since humans are different from God, who is a Spirit, should we expect to understand everything about God’s existence or origins?’
“The love that the brothers showed me was like ‘syrup on molasses’”
Such reasoning has convinced many sincere Buddhists to consider further evidence proving God’s existence. When sound reasoning is coupled with genuine Christian love, it can have a powerful impact on people’s hearts. Ohn Thwin, a former Buddhist, relates: “When comparing my Buddhist belief in Nirvana with the Bible’s promise of Paradise on earth, I found Paradise to be more appealing. But because I believed that many roads lead to truth, I saw no need to act on what I had learned. Then I started attending the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The love that the brothers showed me was like ‘syrup on molasses,’ a Burmese expression describing a truly sweet experience. That love motivated me to act on what I knew to be the truth.”
Of course, helping people to adjust their religious viewpoint requires tact and patience. Kumar Chakarabani was ten years old when his father, a strict Hindu, allowed Bethelite Jimmy Xavier to teach Kumar to read. He recalls: “Father warned him to teach only reading, not religion. So Jimmy told him that My Book of Bible Stories was an excellent book for teaching children to read. Also, after my reading lesson, Jimmy took the time to talk to Father, showing genuine interest in him. When my father started asking questions about religious matters, Jimmy tactfully told him: ‘The Bible has the answers. Let’s find them together.’ In time, not only did my father accept the truth but 63 members of our family also became Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Holding Conventions During an Uprising
In the mid-1980’s, the political scene in Burma became increasingly unstable. Finally, in 1988, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the government. Their protest, however, was swiftly suppressed, and most of the country was placed under martial law.
“The authorities enforced a strict curfew, and gatherings of more than five people were banned,” recalls Bethelite Kyaw Win. “We wondered if we should cancel our upcoming district conventions. But with faith in Jehovah, we approached the military commander of Yangon Division and asked for permission to hold a 1,000-person convention. Two days later, we received our permit! When we showed the permit to authorities in other areas, it prompted them to allow conventions in their areas too. With Jehovah’s help, the whole convention series was a resounding success!”
Not Forsaking Christian Gatherings
After the 1988 uprising, the economic situation in Burma steadily worsened. Even so, the brothers and sisters showed deep faith in God by continuing to put Kingdom interests first in their lives.—Matt. 6:33.
Consider, for example, Cin Khan Dal, who lived with his family in a remote village in Sagaing. “We wanted to attend the district convention in Tahan, a two-day journey away by boat and truck,” he explains. “But no one would watch over our chickens while we were away. Still, we put our trust in Jehovah and attended the convention. Returning home, we found that we had lost 19 chickens—a serious economic blow. Yet, one year later, our small flock had increased to more than 60 chickens. And while many villagers lost their chickens to disease that year, none of our chickens died.”
Another couple who remained spiritually focused was Aung Tin Nyunt and his wife, Nyein Mya, who lived with their nine children in Kyonsha, a small village 40 miles northwest of Yangon. Aung Tin Nyunt relates: “Mostly, our family ate just rice gruel and vegetables. We had no money and nothing to sell. Still, we weren’t depressed. I told my family: ‘Jesus had no place to put his head. So even if I have to live under a tree or die of starvation, I will faithfully keep worshipping God.’
“Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”—Heb. 13:6
“One day, though, we had no food left in our house. My wife and children looked at me with concerned faces. ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured them. ‘God will help us.’ After spending the morning in field service, I took my sons fishing. But we caught only enough fish for one meal. Leaving our fishing baskets at the river, near a clump of water lilies, I told the boys: ‘We can come back later, after the meeting.’ That afternoon was very windy. When we returned, we found that many fish were under the water lilies, seeking shelter from the wind. So we lowered our baskets and caught lots of fish, which we sold to buy food for an entire week.”
Time and again, Jehovah’s servants in Myanmar have experienced the fulfillment of God’s heartwarming promise: “I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.” Thus, they readily say: “Jehovah is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”—Heb. 13:5, 6.
Improvements in Publishing
Since 1956, people in Myanmar have benefited from the regular supply of spiritual food in the Myanmar (Burmese) edition of The Watchtower. Despite ongoing ethnic wars, civil strife, and economic upheaval, not one issue has been missed. How has the magazine been produced?
For many years, the branch office sent several typed copies of the translated magazine text to the government censor. When the censor approved the text, the branch applied for a permit to buy printing paper. After obtaining the paper, a brother took it and the magazine text to a commercial printer, who typeset each page by hand—letter by letter—into Myanmar (Burmese) type. The brother then proofread the text for accuracy, and the printer printed the magazine on a rickety press. Copies of the magazine were then sent to the censor, who supplied a numbered certificate approving the publication of the magazine. Understandably, this laborious procedure took many weeks, and the paper and print quality were quite poor.
In 1989, the branch received a new publishing system that completely transformed their printing operation. Developed and built at world headquarters, the Multilanguage Electronic Phototypesetting System (MEPS) used computers, software, and phototypesetters to produce printable text in 186 languages—including Myanmar!*
“Jehovah’s Witnesses were evidently the first people in Myanmar to compose and publish literature using computers,” says Mya Maung, who worked at the branch. “The MEPS system, which used elegant Myanmar characters designed at our branch, sent ripples through the local printing industry. People could not understand how we made the characters so neat!” MEPS also supported offset printing—a vast improvement over letterpress printing. Moreover, MEPS allowed for high-quality artwork, which greatly increased The Watchtower’s visual appeal.
In 1991 the Myanmar government approved the publication of Awake! and the brothers were thrilled. So, too, was the public! A high official in the Ministry of Information echoed many readers’ comments: “Awake! is different from other religious magazines. It covers many interesting subjects and is easy to understand. I like it very much.”
Over the past 20 years, the number of magazines printed has increased over 900 percent!
Over the past 20 years, the number of magazines printed by the branch each month has grown from 15,000 to more than 141,000, an increase of some 900 percent! The Watchtower and Awake! are now familiar sights in Yangon and are enjoyed by people throughout the country.
New Branch Office Needed
After the 1988 uprising, the military authorities invited social and religious organizations in Myanmar to register with the government. Naturally, the branch office readily did so. Two years later, on January 5, 1990, the government officially registered the “Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watch Tower) Society” in Myanmar.
By this time, the brothers had moved the branch office from 39th Street to a two-story home on half an acre of land on Inya Road, in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. However, the new facility was now strained to the limit. Viv Mouritz, who at that time visited Myanmar as zone overseer, recalls: “The 25 members of the Bethel family worked under difficult conditions. The kitchen had no stove—a sister did the cooking on an electric hot plate. The laundry had no washing machine, so a sister washed clothes in a hole in the floor. The brothers wanted to buy a stove and a washing machine, but the items simply could not be imported.”
Clearly, the brothers needed a larger branch. Consequently, the Governing Body approved a proposal to demolish the existing two-story home and erect a new four-story residence and office building on the same site. Nevertheless, before the brothers could implement the proposal, some major hurdles had to be overcome. First, approval was needed from six levels of government. Second, local building contractors, who were unfamiliar with steel-frame construction, could not do the work. Third, Witness volunteers from overseas could not enter the country. And finally, the building materials could not be obtained locally, nor could they be imported. Needless to say, the project appeared doomed. Just the same, the brothers trusted in Jehovah. If Jehovah wanted it, the new branch office would be built!—Ps. 127:1.
‘Not by Power, But by My Spirit’
Kyaw Win, from the branch’s Legal Department, picks up the story: “Our building application moved steadily through five of the six layers of government, including the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Then the Yangon City Development Committee claimed that a four-story building would be too high and rejected our application. When we resubmitted the application, it was rejected again. The Branch Committee encouraged me to persevere. So I prayed fervently to Jehovah and submitted the application for a third time. It was approved!
“Next we approached the Ministry of Immigration. There, officials told us that foreigners could enter the country on seven-day tourist visas only. But when we explained that our skilled foreign volunteers would train locals in advanced construction techniques, they granted our volunteers six-month visas!
“Then we went to the Ministry of Trade, only to learn that a freeze had been placed on all imports. However, when we informed the officials about the nature of our project, they granted us a license to import building materials worth over one million dollars (U.S.). What about import tax? A visit to the Ministry of Finance resulted in their allowing us to import the materials tax-free! In these and many other ways, we experienced the truth of God’s declaration: ‘“Not by a military force, nor by power, but by my spirit,” Jehovah of armies has said.’”—Zech. 4:6.
In 1997, volunteers converged on the building site. Brothers in Australia donated most of the building materials, while other supplies came from Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Bruce Pickering, who helped oversee the project, relates: “Several brothers from Australia prefabricated the entire steel frame and then traveled to Myanmar to bolt it together piece by piece. Amazingly, not one hole was out of place!” Other volunteers came from Britain, Fiji, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States.
For the first time in 30 years, local publishers could freely associate with foreign brothers and sisters. “We were so excited; it was like a dream,” recalls Donald Dewar. “The spirituality, love, and self-sacrificing spirit of the visitors encouraged us tremendously.” Another brother adds: “We also learned valuable building skills. Publishers who had used only candles learned to wire electric lights. Others who had used only hand fans learned to install air-conditioning. We even learned to use power tools!”
In turn, the foreign volunteers were deeply moved by the faith and love of the Myanmar brothers and sisters. “The brothers were poor, but they had big hearts,” says Bruce Pickering. “Many of them invited us to their homes for meals and shared food that could have lasted their families for several days. Their examples reminded us of what is truly important in life—family, faith, our brotherhood, God’s blessing.”
On January 22, 2000, the new branch facilities were dedicated at a special gathering held at the National Theatre. The local brothers were thrilled to have John E. Barr of the Governing Body deliver the dedication talk.
Building New Kingdom Halls
As work on the new branch was nearing completion, the brothers turned their attention to another urgent need—Kingdom Halls. In 1999, Nobuhiko and Aya Koyama arrived from Japan. Nobuhiko helped to set up a Kingdom Hall Construction Desk at the branch. He recalls: “We brothers started by inspecting congregation meeting places throughout the country, which involved traveling by bus, plane, motorbike, bicycle, boat, and on foot. We often needed government travel permits, since many areas were off-limits to foreigners. Once we identified where new halls were needed, the Governing Body kindly allocated building funds from the program for lands with limited resources.
“After we assembled a team of willing volunteers, the workers descended on Shwepyitha, a Yangon suburb, to build the first new hall. Foreign and local brothers worked together on the project, astonishing the local police, who halted construction several times to check with their superiors whether such mingling was permitted. Other observers praised the brothers. ‘I saw a foreigner cleaning the toilet!’ one man exclaimed. ‘I’ve never seen foreigners do such jobs. You people truly are different!’
“Meanwhile, another construction team started work on a new hall in Tachileik, a town on the Myanmar-Thailand border. Many Thai Witnesses crossed the border each day to work along with their Myanmar brothers on the project. The two groups worked unitedly even though they spoke different languages. In stark contrast, about the time the hall was completed, opposing military groups that lined the border started fighting. Bombs and bullets rained down around the hall, but it was not hit. When the fighting cooled down, 72 people gathered at the hall to dedicate the building to Jehovah, the God of peace.”
Since 1999, Kingdom Hall construction teams have built over 65 Kingdom Halls throughout the country
Since 1999, Kingdom Hall construction teams have built over 65 new Kingdom Halls throughout the country. How were the local publishers affected? Typical are the words of one grateful sister, who through tears of joy exclaimed: “I never imagined that we would have such a beautiful new hall! Now I will try extra hard to invite interested ones to the meetings. I thank Jehovah and his organization for the kindness that they have shown to us!”
During the 1990’s, after decades of isolation, Myanmar began slowly opening up to the outside world. In response, the branch office sought government permission for missionaries to reenter the country. Finally, in January 2003, Gilead graduates Hiroshi and Junko Aoki arrived from Japan, the first missionaries to enter Myanmar in some 37 years.
“With so few foreigners in the country, we needed to be discreet so that the authorities would not misunderstand the nature of our preaching work,” says Hiroshi. “So we began by accompanying the local brothers and sisters on their return visits and Bible studies. We soon discovered that the people of Myanmar love to talk about spiritual things. During our first morning in service, we started five new Bible studies!”
“We often experienced Jehovah’s guiding hand,” Junko adds. “Once, while returning by motorbike from a Bible study near Mandalay, we had a flat tire. Pushing the bike to a nearby factory, we asked for help to repair the tire. The security guard let Hiroshi and the bike inside, but I had to wait at the security booth. The security guard was curious.
“‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
“‘Visiting some friends,’ I replied.
“‘For what?’ he pressed. ‘A religious meeting?’
“Unsure of his motive, I ignored his question.
“‘Be frank!’ he insisted. ‘Which organization are you from?’
“I took a copy of The Watchtower from my bag and showed it to him.
“‘I knew it!’ he exclaimed excitedly. Turning to his coworkers, he cried out: ‘Look! An angel has flattened a tire to send Jehovah’s Witnesses to us!’
“The man reached into his bag and pulled out a Bible and one of our tracts. He had studied with the Witnesses in another area but had lost contact with them when he moved to Mandalay. We started a Bible study with him on the spot. Later, some of his coworkers studied too.”
In 2005, four more missionaries arrived in Myanmar, this time from the Ministerial Training School (now called the Bible School for Single Brothers) in the Philippines. One of the brothers, Nelson Junio, faced a challenge common to many missionaries—homesickness. “I often cried and prayed before falling asleep,” he says. “Then a kindly brother showed me Hebrews 11:15, 16. It relates how Abraham and Sarah did not keep longing for their former home in Ur but kept moving forward in harmony with God’s purpose. After reading that scripture, I didn’t cry anymore. I began to view my assignment as my home.”
Good Examples Benefit Many
In the first century, the apostle Paul counseled Timothy: “The things you heard from me . . . commit to faithful men, who, in turn, will be adequately qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim. 2:2) Taking this principle to heart, the missionaries worked to help the local congregations in Myanmar come into closer alignment with the theocratic procedures of Jehovah’s people worldwide.
For example, the missionaries observed that many local publishers taught their Bible students by having them repeat answers directly from the book—a method used in most Myanmar schools. “We patiently encouraged the publishers to use viewpoint questions to draw out the student’s thoughts and feelings,” says Joemar Ubiña. “The publishers readily applied the suggestion and became more effective teachers as a result.”
The missionaries also noticed that many congregations had only one elder or ministerial servant. Some of those appointed brothers, although faithful and hardworking, tended to deal with the flock in a very authoritative manner. Of course, the same human tendency must have existed in the first century, when the apostle Peter urged elders: “Shepherd the flock of God in your care, not . . . lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock.” (1 Pet. 5:2, 3) How could the missionaries help their brothers? “We worked to set a good example by being extra kind, gentle, and approachable,” says Benjamin Reyes. Their good examples gradually rubbed off. Many elders changed their approach and began caring for the flock in a more compassionate manner.
Improved Translation Brings Benefits
For many years the brothers in Myanmar used a 19th-century vernacular Bible translated by one of Christendom’s missionaries with the help of Buddhist monks. This translation contains many obsolete Pali-language words and is very difficult to understand. So when the Myanmar-language New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was released in 2008, the brothers were ecstatic. “The audience applauded for a long time, and some even wept for joy when they received their personal copy,” recalls Maurice Raj. “The new translation is clear, simple, and accurate. Even Buddhists find it easy to understand!” Soon after the translation was released, the number of Bible studies in the country increased by more than 40 percent.
Like many other languages, the Myanmar language comes in two forms—a formal style rooted in Pali and Sanskrit and a colloquial style used in everyday speech. Both styles are spoken and written. Most of our older publications used the formal style, which growing numbers of people now find difficult to understand. With this in mind, the branch recently began translating publications into everyday Myanmar, which most people easily understand.
These new publications have had an immediate impact. The Translation Department overseer, Than Htwe Oo, explains: “People used to say, ‘Your literature is of high quality, but I cannot understand it.’ Now their faces light up, and they start reading right away. Many exclaim, ‘This literature is so easy to understand!’” Even the commenting at congregation meetings has improved, since the audience now clearly understands what is written in our publications.
Currently, the Translation Department has 26 full-time translators working in three language teams—Myanmar, Hakha Chin, and Sgaw Kayin. Literature has also been translated into 11 other local languages.
On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis, a massive storm packing winds of 150 miles per hour, slammed into Myanmar, leaving a trail of death and destruction from the Ayeyarwady Delta to the Thailand border. The cyclone affected more than two million people and left some 140,000 either dead or missing.
Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses were impacted by the cyclone, yet amazingly none were harmed. Many survived by taking refuge in their newly constructed Kingdom Halls. In Bothingone, a coastal village in the Ayeyarwady Delta, 20 Witnesses as well as 80 other villagers perched for nine hours inside the roof cavity of their Kingdom Hall as floodwaters rose perilously close to the ceiling and then receded.
The branch office promptly dispatched a relief team to the worst-affected region at the mouth of the delta. Traveling through desolate terrain that was littered with corpses, the team reached the village with food, water, and medicine. They were the first relief team to reach the area. After giving the supplies to the local brothers and sisters, the team encouraged them with Scriptural talks and handed out Bibles and Bible literature, since all their belongings had been swept away in the cyclone.
To coordinate the huge relief effort, the branch office set up Disaster Relief Committees in Yangon and Pathein. These committees organized hundreds of volunteers to distribute water, rice, and other basic supplies to cyclone victims. They also arranged for mobile construction teams to rebuild Witness homes that had been damaged or destroyed by the cyclone.
One of the relief volunteers, Tobias Lund, relates: “My wife, Sofia, and I found 16-year-old May Sin Oo, the only publisher in her family, drying her Bible in the sun among the ruins of her family home. She smiled when she saw us, but a tear was trickling down her cheek. Before long, one of our mobile construction teams arrived with hard hats, power tools, and building materials and began building the family a brand-new home. The neighbors were amazed! People squatted for days around the site, which became the main attraction in the area. Onlookers exclaimed: ‘We have never seen anything like this! Your organization is so united and loving. We too would like to become Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ May Sin Oo’s parents and siblings are now attending meetings, and the whole family is making fine spiritual progress.”
The relief work continued for months. The brothers distributed tons of relief supplies and repaired or rebuilt 160 homes and 8 Kingdom Halls. Cyclone Nargis brought tragedy and hardship to Myanmar, but its storm clouds laid bare something precious—the bonds of love that unite God’s people and glorify Jehovah’s name.
An Unforgettable Event
Early in 2007, the Myanmar branch office received a thrilling letter. “The Governing Body asked us to organize an international convention in Yangon,” says Jon Sharp, who with his wife, Janet, had arrived at the branch the preceding year. “The 2009 convention would include hundreds of foreign delegates from ten different countries—something unprecedented in our branch history!”
Jon continues: “Dozens of questions came to our minds: ‘What local venue could hold the large gathering? Would publishers from remote areas attend? Where would they stay? How would they travel? Could they afford to feed their families? Also, what about the Myanmar authorities? Would they even permit such a gathering?’ The obstacles seemed endless. Nevertheless, we recalled Jesus’ words: ‘The things impossible with men are possible with God.’ (Luke 18:27) So, trusting in God, we started planning in earnest.
“We soon located a suitable venue—Myanmar’s National Indoor Stadium, an 11,000-seat, air-conditioned facility near the center of the city. Immediately, we applied to the authorities for use of the venue. However, months later and just weeks before the convention, our application had still not been approved. Then we received devastating news: The stadium management had scheduled a kickboxing tournament at the venue on the same dates as our convention! With no time to find an alternate venue, we patiently negotiated with the event promoter and dozens of officials to resolve the impasse. Finally, the promoter admitted that he could postpone the tournament but only if the 16 professional kickboxers booked for the event would alter their contracts. When the kickboxers heard that Jehovah’s Witnesses wanted the venue for a special convention, every one of them agreed to the change.”
“However,” says Kyaw Win, another Branch Committee member, “we still needed government approval to use the stadium, and our application had already been rejected four times! After praying to Jehovah, we met with the general who controlled every stadium in Myanmar. It was just two weeks before the convention and the first time that we had been granted access to this level of the national government. To our delight, he approved our request!”
Unaware of this ongoing drama, thousands of delegates from all over Myanmar and overseas were making their way to Yangon by plane, train, boat, bus, truck—and on foot. Many Myanmar families had saved for months to attend. Scores of brothers grew crops, others raised pigs, some sewed clothes, a few panned for gold. Many had never been to a large city or had ever seen a foreigner before.
Over 1,300 delegates from northern Myanmar converged on the Mandalay Railway Station to catch a special train chartered to carry them to Yangon. One group from the Naga Hills had traveled for six days, carrying on their backs two publishers whose makeshift wheelchairs had collapsed early in the trip. Hundreds camped out on the station platform, talking, laughing, and singing Kingdom songs. “Everyone was excited,” says Pum Cin Khai, who helped care for transportation. “We supplied them with food, water, and sleeping mats. When the train finally arrived, elders helped each group to their assigned coach. Finally, a loudspeaker blared: ‘The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ train is leaving!’ I scanned the platform for stragglers and leaped aboard!”
Meanwhile, in Yangon, nearly 700 foreign delegates were settling into their hotels. Where, though, would the more than 3,000 Myanmar delegates be accommodated? “Jehovah opened the hearts of the Witnesses in Yangon to look after their brothers and sisters,” says Myint Lwin, who worked in the Rooming Department. “Some families took in up to 15 visitors. They paid to register them with the authorities and provided their guests with breakfast and transportation to and from the stadium each day. Dozens of delegates stayed at local Kingdom Halls; hundreds more slept at a large factory. Even so, despite this massive effort, some 500 delegates still needed accommodations. We explained our problem to the stadium management, and they allowed the delegates to sleep at the stadium—an unprecedented step!”
“Jehovah opened the hearts of the Witnesses in Yangon to look after their brothers and sisters”
Since the stadium was in poor condition, more than 350 volunteers worked for ten days to get it ready for the convention. “We repaired the plumbing, electrical, and air-conditioning systems and then painted and cleaned the whole facility,” says Htay Win, the convention overseer. “This huge amount of work resulted in a fine witness. The army officer in charge of the stadium exclaimed: ‘Thank you! Thank you! I pray to God that you people will use my stadium every year!’”
Over 5,000 people attended the convention, held December 3-6, 2009. On the final day, many delegates wore traditional dress, creating a dazzling display of colorful attire. “All were hugging one another and crying—even before the program started!” said one sister. After Gerrit Lösch of the Governing Body said the final prayer, the audience clapped and waved for several minutes. One 86-year-old sister summed up the feelings of many, “I felt like I was in the new world!”
Many government officials were also impressed. “This gathering is unique,” said one official. “No one is swearing, smoking, or chewing betel nut. Different ethnic groups are united. Never have I seen a group like this!” Maurice Raj relates, “Even the senior military commander in Yangon told us that he and his colleagues had never before seen such an impressive event.”
Many delegates agreed that they had witnessed something special. One local brother declared: “Before the convention, we had only heard about our international brotherhood. Now we have experienced it! We will never forget the love our brothers showed us.”
“Before the convention, we had only heard about our international brotherhood. Now we have experienced it!”
“White for Harvesting”
Almost 2,000 years ago, Jesus told his disciples: “Lift up your eyes and view the fields, that they are white for harvesting.” (John 4:35) The same can be said of Myanmar today. Currently, the country has 3,790 publishers, a ratio of 1 publisher to every 15,931 inhabitants—truly a vast field for harvest! And with 8,005 people attending the 2012 Memorial, the potential for growth is great!
As further evidence, consider Rakhine State, a coastal region bordering Bangladesh that has nearly four million inhabitants but not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Each month, we receive many letters from people in this region requesting literature and spiritual help,” says Maurice Raj. “Also, growing numbers of Buddhists in Myanmar, especially young people, are expressing interest in the truth. Hence, we keep begging the Master to send out more workers into the harvest.”—Matt. 9:37, 38.
“We keep begging the Master to send out more workers into the harvest”
Nearly 100 years ago, two intrepid pioneers brought the good news to this mostly Buddhist country. Since then, thousands of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds have taken their stand for the truth. Despite violent conflicts, political upheaval, widespread poverty, religious persecution, international isolation, and natural disasters, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Myanmar have shown unwavering devotion to Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ. They remain determined to preach the Kingdom good news and “to endure fully and be long-suffering with joy.”—Col. 1:11.
Myanmar was formerly called Burma, after the Bamar (Burmese) tribe, Myanmar’s largest ethnic group. The country was renamed the Union of Myanmar in 1989, to represent the many ethnic groups in the country. We will use the name Burma for events prior to 1989 and the name Myanmar for events after that year.
Anglo-Indians are people of mixed Indian and British ancestry. Under British rule, thousands of Indians migrated to Burma, then considered part of “British India.”
Bertram Marcelline was the first person to be baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Burma. He died in Burma in the late 1960’s, faithful to the end.
Equivalent, at the time, to about $95 (U.S.), a sizable sum.
See the 1966 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, page 192.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
MEPS now accommodates more than 600 languages.