Harvest Bridge Podcast Episode 1: The Coup in Myanmar
Below you will find the transcript for the first episode of our podcast! You can listen to the recording on Spotify or watch it on Youtube below.
Welcome to the Harvest Bridge podcast. A part of our work here at Harvest Bridge is connecting local leaders in South Asia with people like you, here in the United States. Through our podcast we want to provide a place where you can hear their voices and listen to their stories in their own words. There is a transcription available for those who prefer to read these stories.
For our first episode, we have the unique opportunity to share a conversation we had with a pastor from Myanmar, who is one of our two directors in the country. We’ll call him Pastor T to protect his identity. He was traveling in the United States for part of 2023, and while he was here we were able to sit down and talk with him. Due to the coup, which we will talk more about in just a moment, it’s extremely hard to get this type of unfiltered interview with leaders there without risking their safety.
Before we hear from Pastor T, let’s talk about some background for those of you who are new to the conversation about this area in Southeast Asia. Myanmar, which you may have heard referred to as Burma, is roughly the size of Texas, but it has twice as many people – about 54 million. It is a beautiful country with eye-catching architecture and gorgeous landscapes. Back in 2010, the country began a formal transition away from roughly half a century of military rule. They even had free elections five years later. But then in February of 2021, the military staged a coup and took back control of the country, overturning the democratically elected government.
The Free Burma Rangers are a Christian multinational humanitarian aid and advocacy organization. Recently, they described what the coup has been like for many people in Myanmar, and specifically in the city where our other country director, Pastor P lives.
“There are gun battles, artillery, rockets, and grenades everyday in [the city]. Jets are dropping bombs on the villages directly outside the city. To get to the city you have to go through several Burma Army checkpoints [which is] very dangerous for the locals, especially with foreigners along, or you have to know how to sneak through the jungle, know where gaps between checkpoints are, and not run into a Burma Army patrol. [The city] has a lot of spies/informants, so once you are there your presence would be reported to the army. You would be questioned and detained, and if they don’t like your story you will be killed. The locals who hosted you could be tortured and killed.”
As the coup unfolded, these kind of messages from Pastor P became common. He wrote:
“The military kept over 80 children under age 5 as hostages. Please pray for these innocent children, for their safety and soon release. We began to hear bombs and gun-firing again tonight in our city. According to the news, these children are kept as hostages or as their shield. That means they will not release these children until [the military] thinks they are safe from the [resistance].”
We asked Pastor T about this time early in the coup and he shared similar experiences.
“As you know, we have been over 61 years under military dictatorship. And then we have five years of freedom in the past, and it has been taken back again. So every people, even the children, they don’t feel very good. So they start to protest. And when they protest, the army is taking power and shooting them. And these people flee to forests and take their own training and fight back. And then now, it has been getting worse. They [the military] have bombed villages and houses. Killed people. Still it happens today.”
You just heard Pastor T mention they were bombing villages and houses. It became clear early in the coup that the military’s campaign would be a brutal one. They were determined to maintain power at all costs, and would not spare even the lives of children and their families. They are still doing all of this today, three years later. In the middle of the chaos, everyday life came to a standstill early in the coup.
“Oh, yeah, since the coup happens, no school, everything has been shut down. Hospitals, you know, schools, and churches. And everything has been closed down. So there is no way for everybody. So, we have been suffering badly, so we don’t go out. So people were just crying out for help. But still, there is no [help]. There’s no safety. They even released thousands of prisoners to cause more problems. To burn houses. So we are asked to just stay at home, to not go out at all. Even in day time also.”
Pastor T mentioned the prisoners. In an act of terror, the military released thousands of prisoners into the cities about a week after the coup took place, further increasing the danger for the people. Pastor P wrote to us on February 13th 2021 and said:
“Myanmar, my country, right now, is like zombie movies. We have to stay in fear when the sun goes down and dark comes. Police and soldiers are arresting people by force at night. The criminals – intentionally released from prison – are causing violence in the dark.”
In many areas of the country, schools were closed. Roads were blocked. Criminals were free in many towns. Curfews were instituted. Inflation skyrocketed. The people of Myanmar were suffering immensely. The people began to communicate through the internet to share information with one another. Perhaps this would also get the attention of the world. They needed help. But then the military moved quickly to stop them. Pastor P wrote us again, saying:
“The Junta leaders announced that Facebook will be blocked in Myanmar and anyone who opposes the new administration will be arrested immediately. The internet line will be cut off for 14 days. [It is] very sad. I call everyone to speak out on our behalf to international leaders. We are in a very dangerous situation. If it is shut down, it will not be possible to communicate. Many people believe that during this time the military will hurt the people and will do whatever they want to the people since they can’t control the people right now.”
Using social media to communicate became extremely dangerous. Any post on social media, even something as simple as liking another post, was grounds for arrest, and still is today. Harvest Bridge was still able to be in touch with these leaders using secure communication apps on their cell phones. Even with these secure lines of communication, messages still have to be quickly deleted in case their phones are searched. Pastor T explains:
“As you know, you might not see the news a lot on the internet, or in the media, because they [the military] censor all the media or the internet. So if you just post something, or even just comment or like it, you can be imprisoned the next day, without any reason. So just by commenting or “liking” [on social media]. So these are the new laws that they [the military] make.”
People who share their frustrations online have been punished, even popular celebrities. Pastor T told us about two celebrities who were arrested.
“I see that there’s one song composer who has been comparing the 61 years under the dictatorship and five years of freedom. So he just compared, when the coup happened, we have about four hours of electric power within 24 hours. So, he say, “61 years and 4 or 5 years, there’s a big difference.” So, he was so angry and disappointed. He posted that he has been feeling so bad. And the next day he has been caught by the army. And then he also has been sentenced for posting that, saying that right thing, you know. He is in prison for 20 years. And then there is another actress and the army had bombed villages and about over 150 children died. So she said, very sorrowfully, in her post [on social media]. So, she also has been sentenced for 3 years. By saying sorry for the children.”
The military does whatever it takes to silence those sharing what is really happening in Myanmar. People have been imprisoned for exposing the army’s killing of children as they burned villages, or for commenting on the impact of blackouts on communities with only a few hours of electricity each day.
During this time, it was Kate, the Executive Director of Harvest Bridge, who was receiving these messages from our pastors. These leaders are her friends. She has traveled in Myanmar and spent time in their homes, met their families, and eaten at their tables. We asked Kate what it was like to receive these messages as the coup unfolded:
“Pastor P and Pastor T are not just pastors that Harvest Bridge supports, and they aren’t just ministry or work colleagues to me. They are dear friends. They are my brothers in Christ. Before Covid and the Coup, I had been on many all day road trips with them to visit our network of over a hundred pastors and church leaders in the country. I had spent hours playing with their children. We discussed theology and politics and philosophy. And we laughed! We worked side by side on women’s empowerment projects and pastor training and orphan care. They educated me on history and theology and culture.
I’ve said this before, but Pastor T is the greatest encourager in my life. And Pastor P is one of the funniest people I know, and quite possibly the smartest. I love these men and their families.
February 1st, 2021 changed my life.
It was like living in the twilight zone reading the initial reports the day the coup was unfolding, and then immediately having my worst fears confirmed that day and week and month as I reached out to our pastors and heard their lived experiences.
Every morning for the past three years, the first thing I do is to check my messages to see if there has been another bombing in one of our pastors’ villages, if another one of our leaders has become a refugee, or if another person in their lives has been arrested and being held for ransom. It’s surreal. In the face of this terror, I have seen our leaders respond with wisdom and compassion and ingenuity.”
Kate just mentioned the Covid pandemic. During all of the other challenges Myanmar was facing, they were also dealing with variants of Covid that were ravaging their communities. The military confiscated oxygen tanks and made it nearly impossible for people to access proper medical care and electricity. So, the impacts were well beyond what we saw here in the US. We are grateful that at the height of Covid in the country in mid 2021, we were able to support one hundred people gaining access to oxygen tanks, and one hundred and thirty families receiving medical and emergency supplies, despite the military’s ban.
“Yes, Harvest Bridge has been doing a lot, you know, since we started working with them. Along, coming alongside. So, helping supporting missionaries. And then during the pandemic when the coup happens, so the hospital has been shut down, the schools have been shut down, all the clinics. So, there’s no oxygen tanks. People suffer, die, have lack of oxygen. So Harvest Bridge have been helping us a lot to save life through oxygen. They send lot’s of support.”
As hard as all of this is to imagine for adults, it is unfathomable to think about the children. In March of 2021, in some regions the military threatened to force all men over the age of 10 to serve. Pastor P then asked for prayer:
“Please pray! There is an order to force all men over the age of 10 into the military. Three of our missionaries were affected by this order and they are hiding in the jungle. They are now safe. Many of our missionaries are affected by this order.”
At this time, many people started to flee the country or hide in the jungles. But for leaders like Pastor P and Pastor T, this was impossible. In July, Pastor P wrote to us saying:
“Fighting takes place near to our home right now. We are hiding inside the toilets. We are still hiding. Our children are with great fear and crying like anything. Thank you for your prayers!”
Pastor P here is not only talking about his own children, but the many children who he cares for in his home. Since the coup began, his children’s home has grown from about 30 children to about 60 children. This is common for ministry leaders in Myanmar to care for orphaned children in their area. It was one thing for an adult to try and disappear into the jungle. To flee with a dozen or more children without using the roads was impossible. This continues to be a challenge today, as the ministry leaders have to decide whether to try and get the children to safer areas or keep them in their home. As the coup continued, the violence escalated. On September 18th, 2021, Pastor P shared this report:
“The people of Myanmar are shocked with the recent news which happened today around 5:00 pm. Because of the heavy weapons used by the military, 19 houses were burned in the downtown and one pastor who was trying to cease the fire was shot to death. The military is becoming more violent because now the PDF are more strong and the military is targeting the innocent people.”
Let’s talk more now about the resistance. The PDF Pastor P just mentioned is The People’s Defence Force. Since the coup began, they are the armed wing of the National Unity Government, the government that was ousted in the coup. They, along with other armed rebel groups, are fighting against the military junta. As of the publication of this podcast, they are making progress. Just since late October 2023, the PDF and their allies have been able to take dozens of military bases. They have been able to encourage soldiers to leave the military. Much of their success has come by offering financial support to soldiers willing to lay down their weapons. The military is nervous about the recent success of this resistance movement. Harvest Bridge’s partners have shared about the escalation from the military using airstrikes and blocking roads as they have grown more concerned about the success of the alliances. Many villages are deserted as people flee, leaving everything behind, to escape the air strikes. Since 2021, this has been the experience of the people of Myanmar. Pastor T shared:
“Yeah, in the past they say over 4000 villages have been burned into ashes. Over 100,000 houses have been burned. But it will be more now because they don’t stop doing that burning, destroying, bombing villages. So there will be more numbers.”
In the midst of all of this, leaders like Pastor T and Pastor P have refused to give up hope. They continue to serve God’s people. Kate shared more with us about the work these pastors have been doing in spite of all of these challenges.
“In this podcast, as you are hearing about the horrors of this war from Pastor P and Pastor T, you won’t hear all of the life saving and life giving work they personally have been doing since this coup began. So I want to make sure to boast about them a little bit.
With so many dying due to the coup and to Covid, Pastor P’s children’s home grew from 25 to 60 children in a matter of 2 1/2 years. He and his wife took those children in without any guarantee of additional support. They made many personal sacrifices to make it possible.
As the majority of our 30 monthly supported pastors have had to escape their villages due to bombing, Pastor T worked tirelessly to make sure we could still send them support and get them additional funds to do food relief in their new refugee camps in the jungles.
Multiple times since the coup began, several of our pastors have sadly had to act as hostage negotiators after people in their community have been arrested on false charges by the military, held for ransom, and tortured.
Pastor T spends time almost every day counseling people over the phone, providing comfort, a listening ear, and wisdom, even as he and his wife have experienced huge personal loss.
Several of our leaders have identified specific women to receive economic development support, meaning that even in the war, several women, who were forced to leave their homes, have still been able to start or continue their small businesses and support their families.
Our many pastors who have been displaced have started churches and Bible studies in their refugee communities. They have helped feed thousands of families since the coup began.
I saw Pastor P’s genius with logistics in Summer of 2021 when Covid hit the country hard. The military confiscated oxygen tanks and later withheld vaccines from citizens. Pastor P, managed to smuggle dozens of oxygen tanks about 200 miles across the country to places that needed the tanks most.”
When Pastor T talks about this work, he always mentions how grateful he is for the support he has received. He also doesn’t talk about what he did, as an individual. He uses “we” and highlights the ministry of the others who are working alongside of him.
“Yes, we are fortunate and blessed by the Lord through Harvest Bridge. So, when the coup begins, we start to pray to the Lord to strengthen our brothers in Christ Jesus, and encourage other people also. So we are able to support and send food relief, and children education, providing backup because they are not in school for two years. So, just to back up. And then we also have supported women’s empowerment. Some of our partners who flee, like they have grown chickens [with Harvest Bridge support]. And then we also support mostly the food relief in different places in the rural area where people suffer more.”
You just heard Pastor T talk about the emergency relief they are providing. Leaders like him in Myanmar are caring for children, providing education, working on programs for women’s empowerment and providing food relief, especially in rural areas that are often unreached by other aid. They have already done so much for their communities, but they have continued to work tirelessly to help in any way they can.
“We were also able to support to help empower women in some area, in the rural area. Still, we have been looking for that, because there is no farming, there’s no business, there’s no proper transportation. When the coup happened, they say there have been cuts: they just cut transportation, they just cut communication, they just cut electric power, and they just cut transporting things (commerce). So, that makes people’s [lives] more difficult. So, we have been praying for that, to do more.”
In addition to meeting their physical needs, these pastors are also providing the spiritual nourishment people need to not lose hope. Through their outreach, they are sharing the gospel. Pastor T went on to say this:
“So many people think and say that there’s no more hope, no more future. So that is one of the privileges and opportunity, for the Christian to witness the gospel to many people who have been suffering, mentally and spiritually because of the pandemics and the coup. So this has been a great challenge for the Christian, as I say, not to be lukewarm, but to stand for what we believe. And no matter whatever circumstances come to our daily life.”
With everything they are still facing – violence, inflation, power outages, oppression – it would be so easy to be discouraged. We asked Pastor T how you find hope in a time like this. Listen to what he said:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed.’ So that mean, we suffer from all kinds of things, you know. But still, we’re alive. We are persecuted, but we are not dead. So that means then, there’s a reason. God wants us to be something. You know, to be helpful, or God wants us to accomplish something while we’re here. So we believe, we will not die easily. Because God has a reason and purpose. So this is one of the Bible verses [2 Corinthians 4:8] that I take very strong, and [gives] courage in my life. So, life is not easy. But through this life, you can play a very important key part in the life of the people.”
There is something we haven’t told you about Pastor T. Remember, when we did this interview, he was visiting the United States. Well, he has family members who live here. And he has a visa, which means Pastor T could choose to leave this whole situation in Myanmar behind and start a new life in the US. A life without the coup, without the daily violence, the food insecurity, the blackouts. So we asked him “Why do you go back to Myanmar?” And this is what he said.
“Lots of people ask me, why don’t you, you know, stay here? Because life is very difficult and life is very dangerous. So I felt, you know, when I come to know the Lord, then the Lord called me to serve among my people. So I know it’s not easy, it’s very fearful, very threatening, but I felt that I can be part of helping our people through partners and friends and Christians around the world. So if I don’t go back, there will be more difficulties and suffering for my people. But, if I go back also, there will not be a big change. But I, I believe personally, I can be, you know, do something for my people. So, that is my commitment and my prayer.”
Here Pastor T acknowledged that it is dangerous to go back, and not always easy. He also knows that his efforts alone won’t turn things around for his community. But still he goes back. This is what he said next:
“I can be part of some of the call to support mentally and spiritually. Because many people suffer mentally, spiritually. They have lost the loved one during the pandemic. And they now, they have lost not only their loved one, but they have lost their houses, their property, so it’s getting worse. So we need people who have the heart and compassion for these people who suffer badly. So if, I felt, if I’m not going back, so I might not be happy all the rest of my life. So that’s my prayer.”
At the time of publishing this podcast, we are 3 years into the coup. We are beginning to see glimmers of hope that the military dictatorship may be overthrown. We know that even when that day comes, there will be a great deal of work ahead for the people of Myanmar as they rebuild their communities. We also know that God will continue to work through the commitment of leaders like Pastor P and Pastor T, and through the generosity of people like you. Let’s hear a final word from Kate.
“I thank God for the many individuals and churches and organizations who have given funds to make this work possible. I am thankful that Harvest Bridge exists for such a time as this. We support the work of the local church in South Asia and Myanmar. And if the local church is living and serving and loving in a war zone, that is what we are supporting them to do.
And I am thankful for our “God who sees”. When the world isn’t looking, our God is. I have seen and heard so many impossible answers to prayer since the coup began. There is so much I could share, but I would encourage you to read the Myanmar pages in our 2021 and 2022 Impact Reports, which Pastor P and Pastor T both wrote. On our Stories page on our website, you can find many updates directly from them and other leaders in Myanmar.”
The work continues in Myanmar. With your support, in 2022 Harvest Bridge was able to support 4 new churches and 12 new house fellowships. 45 children were provided with tutoring whose schools were closed due to the war. Over 2000 food-insecure people received a month’s worth of food. A pastor and his family were freed from a hostage situation. Five families were relocated after their homes were destroyed. And we supported three refugee women and their families to re-start their businesses. We are still gathering statistics from last year, but in 2023, we were able to do even more. Just a few months ago, additional funds were sent to Myanmar to help Pastor P evacuate 50 children to safety as violence intensified in their area. The work of Harvest Bridge and the ministry leaders in Myanmar is only getting started. Thank you for listening to the Harvest Bridge podcast. Follow us on social media, or subscribe to our email list to learn more about the ministry of leaders throughout South Asia who are doing much, with little.