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Refugee educator at Thai-Burma border receives BWA Human Rights Award

MELBOURNE, Australia (BP)–A Baptist educator in a refugee camp in Thailand is the recipient of the Baptist World Alliance’s Human Rights Award.

Known simply as “Rev. Simon,” he was unable to travel to Melbourne, Australia, to personally receive the award Jan. 8 during the 18th Baptist World Congress, lacking a visa from his native Burma or a visa from Thailand.

Rev. Simon is among 110,000 to 115,000 refugees from the Karen people of Burma (or Myanmar as preferred by the current government) found just inside the Thai border. An estimated one-third of the Karen refugees are Baptists.

The refugees were driven from their villages in Burma by Myanmar forces. Rev. Simon, however, in 1985 left a teaching position in a theological college in Rangoon, Burma, sensing a call of God to become a refugee and begin an educational ministry among his fellow Karen refugees. He is principal of the Kawthoolei Karen Baptist Bible School, with nearly 200 students in several bamboo-and-thatch structures in the Maela Camp of about 30,000 refugees in northwest Thailand.

“… I do believe that this [award] is not the doing of man,” Rev. Simon wrote in a Nov. 10 letter to Knud Wumpelmann of Denmark, a former BWA president who chairs the BWA Human Rights Award Committee. “But it is what the Lord is doing in order to reveal His mighty power and His glory by doing this wonderful thing for our Karen people and the people of Burma.”

Rev. Simon, whose refugee camp ministry has been visited by many of the world’s human rights leaders including South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, wrote that “I honestly consider myself to be too insignificant to receive” the award.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was the inaugural BWA Human Rights Award recipient during the 1995 Baptist World Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Carter appealed unsuccessfully to the Thai government for Rev. Simon to be able to attend the Jan. 5-9 Melbourne congress.

Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid for the Baptist World Alliance, visited the Bible school Rev. Simon leads in October 1998.

“You realize you’re in the presence of a very special person … a very loving Christian man with unique gifts that he is using to the full to educate this group of young people,” Montacute recounted. “You saw that [uniqueness], then, reflected in the young people, very dedicated in their studies and with a vision for Christian service.”

Rev. Simon and his wife, Tablut, have three teenage daughters. He became a theological teacher in Rangoon, Burma, after earning a master’s degree from a theological seminary in Baguio City, Philippines, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1998.

Alan Marr, the Baptist Union of Victoria’s superintendent for Melbourne has known Rev. Simon since 1994. He noted the circumstances facing the educator and his fellow refugees:

“In recent years the people in the camps have suffered greatly. They have been terrorized by troops crossing the border from Burma who have wreaked havoc upon them. In January 1997, two camps were totally burned to the ground, leaving more than 10,000 people homeless. They tried to do the same at the Maela Camp where Simon lives with his family but were prevented by Karen militia. Almost the entire camp of 30,000 people fled for safety in the surrounding jungle, but Simon, his family and the students from [the Bible school] remained in the camp.

“They buried the eight Burmese soldiers who were killed in the skirmish,” Marr continued. “And after ensuring that the camp was safe, after three days of fear and uncertainty, they started the generator to turn the lights on at night to show the others that it was safe for them to return.

“Gradually they all came back. This was an important sign to the people of Maela that the people of God were trusting him and were willing to get on with their lives in spite of the hardships,” Marr recounted.

Marr described Rev. Simon as having “modeled a life of discipleship,” while “his commitment to Christ is a source of stability and inspiration to the people around him. He has instilled within his students a vision of the kingdom of God which brings hope and dignity to the Karen people.”

David Groves, director of Australian Baptist World Aid who has visited Rev. Simon’s work several times, said, “Frequently he is of poor health and must bear the same privations and lack of medical care as all of his people. Rev. Simon has engendered hope in a most oppressive situation.” According to Groves, Rev. Simon “and all of his colleagues and fellow countrymen are victims of the harsh and illegal military rule of Burma.”

Rev. Simon, in his letter to Wumpelmann, invited a BWA investigation of human rights abuses weathered by Karen refugees.

“As one of the refugees I am not free to move from place to place or camp to camp and see what’s happening along the border,” Rev. Simon wrote. “I know that you who are living in a free world have more information about what’s happening along the border and in Burma than I do. I would like to request you and the BWA Human Rights Committee to send someone as your representative to the border area along Burma and Thailand and visit the refugee camps along the border and do the investigation of human rights abuses.

“Two of our Karen refugee camps are still in the process of moving to a new place and facing a lot of problems and difficulties,” Rev. Simon continued. “The border between Burma and Thailand is closed by both the military regime of Burma and the Thai government and many so-called illegal immigrants and workers are the victims of human rights abuses.

“We really need your help and your prayers,” Rev. Simon wrote. “On behalf of our churches and our people, I humbly request you to be with us, encourage us, strengthen us, help us in ways and means you can and pray for us. We are badly in need of your help. PLEASE DO COME.”