The Rev. Clifford Maung of Bedford is pastor of the Overseas Burmese Christian Fellowship in Allston, a branch of the Baptist Church. There about 120 people affiliated, and they are distressed and anxious about current events in their homeland.
“We are very concerned about our country because we grew up under the military regime and we don’t want to go back to that,” Maung declared.
Burma, also known as Myanmar (military rulers changed its name in 1989), was thrown into turmoil on Feb. 1 when the military seized control following a general election that state councilor Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide. The forces, which backed the opposition, declared a year-long state of emergency after claims of widespread fraud.
The military has detained the president and all key leaders of her party, Maung reported, even arresting a popular singer whose theme is peace and reconciliation. Troops are operating at night when “they can do whatever they want. The police don’t protect; the police are going around and arresting people.”
Maung and others from the Burmese community are demonstrating and pleading their case in the hope that the U.S. government can exert pressure. President Joe Biden has issued an executive order to impose sanctions on the leaders of the coup, and steps are being taken to block access to government funds held in the United States. “We are hoping that he will do more,” Maung said.
Maung, 52, first came to the United States as a graduate student in the School of Theology at Boston University. “When I came here, I could express myself but I didn’t understand what people were saying for the first six months,” he said, noting that he never used a computer until his arrival at BU.
He returned to Burma in 2001, where he was married, and came back to this area to earn a doctorate in ministry from Andover Newton Theological School in 2007. Then he went home again.
A year later, he said, the local church, established in 1997, asked him to return as its pastor, and he has served since then. Maung explained that Burma is a Buddhist country with a Christian minority, and most of that is Baptist as a result of missionary activity in the early 19th century.
Maung has lived in Bedford since 2014. He and his wife lost their teenage daughter to Covid-19 10 months ago.
Maung was born in 1958 in the city known as Rangoon, today called Yengon. Burma was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011. His memories of growing up in poverty under a military regime are indelible. “We had to line up for food,” he remembered. “We had to report to authorities anytime we had guests.” He shared an anecdote – when he received his first national identification card at age 12, there was an error in the date of birth. His father advised him to memorize the new birthday rather than risk being without an ID while the old one was corrected.
He recalled his attempts to teach himself English in Burma right out of high school. There wasn’t much tourism in the closed country, so he and his friends would try to strike up conversations in English “every time we saw white people. We thought all of those people could speak English.”
Now the community is gathering information primarily through conversations with family and friends on Twitter, other social media, and telephone; there has been very little on the television news cycle. Indeed, Maung said, he has to explain to casual acquaintances where his country – Burma or Myanmar – is located. There is an 11 ½-hour time difference.
Last week, he said, the military rulers closed the Internet for a day. Then, “for some reason, they put the Internet back on.” But there are rumors it will happen again, he said. He is concerned about the welfare of family members – his father, sister and aunt, brother-in-law and sister-in-law, as well as many friends. “We are so close to each other.”
One disturbing tactic he described is the military has emptied the prisons of more than 20,000 criminals “to make room for political leaders.” He said “thugs are running wild, setting fires. Men spend the night outside; “women and children stay inside praying for protection.”
The minister said he hopes the United States can exert more international pressure on the regime. He acknowledged that China’s insistence that the matter is internal complicates things. “You live in a land of freedom. Pay attention to us and make your voice known. Raise a voice for voiceless people. Help us regain our humanity and our dignity.”
The deposed president, Aung San Suu Kyi, became world-famous in the 1990s for campaigning to restore democracy. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991. In 2015 she won the country’s first openly contested election in 25 years.
Maung said the latest report is she is under house arrest and on a hunger strike. He and others have expressed disappointment that “she hasn’t spoken up against episodes of violence perpetrated by the military. I was disappointed she didn’t speak up for truth and justice and educate the people. Maybe she was waiting for other community leaders to speak on her behalf.”
The minister noted that Burma has great diversity with many ethnic groups and 135 dialects. He said Burmese communities are scattered throughout the U.S., bolstered by thousands who came as refugees in 2006. “If you drive from Boston to Seattle, you can stop every two hours and eat in Burmese people’s homes.” He added that the Burmese Christian Association of North America organized in 2000 “to have a fellowship with each other.”
He spoke of his community’s annual celebration of the church’s founding, which coincided with Burmese New Year in May. It was “an opportunity for non-Burmese to know who we are, learn about our food, our culture. We want people to network together and help each other.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763