MYANMAR (BP) — The government of Myanmar (Burma) and the Karen National Union, the country’s oldest ethnic rebel group, signed a cease-fire agreement Jan. 12, bringing a possible end to 60-plus years of fighting between Burmese Buddhist ethnic groups and the predominantly Christian Karen.
Christian workers in Southeast Asia are expressing cautious hope and calling for prayer in light of the historic agreement, the first since the Karen National Union began its struggle for autonomy in 1948. If effective, the cease-fire could mean the end of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
“If it lasts, this could be a huge step forward,” said Mitch Igo*, a Christian worker based in Southeast Asia. “It could create positive stability.”
Hans Peter*, another Christian worker familiar with the region, agreed. “I hope what we are hearing is true,” he said. “The ethnic groups have been down this road before, only to be betrayed.”
For many years the Karen people have been the target of “ethnic cleansing” by the ruling Burmese. According to reports from human rights groups, military forces have routinely burned Karen villages, homes and churches. As a result, thousands of Karen have been forced from their homes, with many seeking refuge in neighboring Thailand.
Given the depth of hatred and bitterness between the two groups, overcoming their longstanding rivalry will take more than a political agreement.
“An entire generation of Burmese and Karen have grown up fighting with each other,” Igo said. “There is such deep mistrust it may take another generation to smooth out. Lasting peace will only be found in Christ.”
However, Igo and Peter voiced cautious optimism, noting that real change seems to be taking place in the country since the March 2011 elections — Myanmar’s first “free” elections in 20 years. The new government has recognized the political party of freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, sought to improve relations with Western governments and moved to negotiate an end to conflicts with other ethnic rebel groups in addition to the Karen.
In spite of mixed reports on the status of religious freedom since the election, Igo hopes the cease-fire will allow Christian workers access to areas previously closed due to fighting.
Peter hopes these changes are a signal that the cease-fire is “the real deal.”
“Time will tell,” he said.
Among the ways to pray for Myanmar:
— that the cease-fire will result in lasting peace and stability within the region.
— that Burmese and Karen ethnic groups will forgive each other for past atrocities and learn to work together.
— that Christian workers will gain greater access to closed areas as a result of increased openness by the government.
— that Karen Christians will take a lead role in sharing the Gospel with other ethnic groups.
*Names changed. Tess Rivers is a writer with the International Mission Board based in Southeast Asia.