'They steal ... then they burn': Burmese church in Columbus calls out Myanmar injustices

The Rev. John Van Nun Tluang is the pastor of Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church, a Burmese congregation on the Far West Side. He wants to bring America’s attention back to the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, where he says human rights abuses have worsened since a 2021 military coup.
The Rev. John Van Nun Tluang is the pastor of Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church, a Burmese congregation on the Far West Side. He wants to bring America’s attention back to the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, where he says human rights abuses have worsened since a 2021 military coup.

Galloway resident David Lian is distraught: Government soldiers recently burned down his sister’s business and home in northwestern Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, he said, and it wasn't an isolated incident.

“They steal your TV, furniture — all the good stuff — then they burn,” the 38-year-old said.

Lian is among the members of Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church, a Burmese congregation on the Far West Side, who want to bring America’s attention back to the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, where they say human rights abuses have worsened since a 2021 military coup.

Recently, a United Nations human rights expert called on the world to “respond to the crisis in Myanmar with the same urgency they have responded to the crisis in Ukraine.”

Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church's pastor, the Rev. John Van Nun Tluang, has been writing letters with his congregants to Ohio's U.S. congressional delegation in support of a bill focused on Myanmar.

The proposed Burma Act would not match the billions in aid the United States is providing to Ukraine, but it would commit more than $270 million for humanitarian assistance and civil society aid, and increase targeted sanctions on junta members.

The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support in April. To become law, it must pass the Senate during the remainder of this year's lame-duck session — competing with other bills in a jam-packed schedule.

“The world are forgetting about Burma. We need help, humanitarian assistance," Tluang told The Dispatch. "If they pass (the Burma Act), it would be so helpful for us and all the people in Burma.”

Myanmar: A history of persecution of minorities

Tluang and his congregants are Chin, a minority ethnic group from northwestern Myanmar. Around 1,000 Chin former refugees live in Greater Columbus, mostly on the West Side. Many work in warehouses, meatpacking plants, and restaurants, according to the pastor, who is originally from Myanmar's Chin State and resettled in the U.S. in 2010.

The majority of Chin people were converted to Christianity by American Baptist missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said.

The Burmese military, which has effectively controlled Myanmar since 1962, has long persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, including the Chin, Shan, Karen, Kachin, and Rohingya groups.

Peter Cunghup, 38, of the Far West Side, said Burmese soldiers forced him to be their porter, without pay, when he was in his late teens, before he fled Myanmar in 2006.

“They made us take their bags and go all over the jungle,” said Cunghup, who now works as a real estate agent in Columbus.

Peter Cunghup, a real estate agent from the Far West Side, said he was persecuted by Burmese soldiers when he was growing up there. He and others from Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church have participated in a campaign to support the proposed Burma Act, which would provide U.S. support for civil society and human rights and impose additional targeted sanctions on Burmese officials.
Peter Cunghup, a real estate agent from the Far West Side, said he was persecuted by Burmese soldiers when he was growing up there. He and others from Emmanuel Chin Baptist Church have participated in a campaign to support the proposed Burma Act, which would provide U.S. support for civil society and human rights and impose additional targeted sanctions on Burmese officials.

Myanmar began a gradual liberalization process in the early 2010s, and elections were held in 2015 and 2020. However, steps toward democracy were marred by the military’s and Buddhist nationalists’ violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims in 2017, which drove 750,000 refugees into Bangladesh and drew accusations of genocidal intent by the United Nations and U.S. State Department.

Myanmar: The 2021 military coup and its aftermath

In February 2021, the military overthrew the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy and detained its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In response, the Biden Administration authorized new sanctions against the Burmese military and its economic interests.

It is unclear if they have had the desired effect, as human rights violations have continued. There are reports of at least 1,900 killings by the military since the coup, more than 1 million people internally displaced, and the executions of jailed democracy activists.

Members of Tluang’s congregation said they hear about ongoing atrocities from relatives back home.

Lian said that the military has burned more than 1,000 homes in Thantlang, where his sister lived until the recent incident. "It's like a ghost town now," he said.

Representatives from the Embassy of Myanmar in Washington could not be reached for comment.

David Lian, who has participated in a letter-writing campaign to support the proposed Burma Act, said government soldiers in Myanmar recently burned down his sister's business and home there.
David Lian, who has participated in a letter-writing campaign to support the proposed Burma Act, said government soldiers in Myanmar recently burned down his sister's business and home there.

Myanmar’s international supporters include Russia and China, who sell arms to the junta and lend it support on the U.N. Security Council. Israel, a longtime supplier of the Burmese military, halted its exports in 2018.

The Burma Act

The proposed Burma Act, for which Tluang and his congregants are advocating, would provide $220.5 million for humanitarian assistance in Burma and neighboring countries where refugees have fled, along with $50 million for civil society and independent media.

The act also would expand targeted sanctions to more junta leaders and foreigners who do business with the military. The Biden administration would have discretionary power to impose sanctions on Myanmar’s state-owned oil company, a major source of foreign currency that already faces European Union sanctions.

Some experts contend that sanctioning the oil company could worsen power shortages in Myanmar, but Lian said the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I know that when they do economic sanction, people suffer, but at the same time, it’s effective to cut off the military support,” he said.

Sherrod Brown, Ohio's Democrat U.S. senator, supports moving forward with the Burma Act and has previously supported a whole-of-government approach to restoring Burma’s democratic path, according to a spokesperson.

A spokesperson for outgoing Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "Senator Portman shares the concerns of many of his colleagues about the state of democracy in Burma and will certainly review the bill before any committee action.”

The Burma Act would need to pass out of committee and get a Senate floor vote before the end of the lame-duck session at the end of the year in order to become law.  Meanwhile, the Senate is already busy with other debates around government funding, immigration and other topics.

Tluang remains optimistic, though, and said he will continue to write his letters.

"We need to write, we need to fight, and we need the help of the U.S. government for Burma," he said.

Peter Gill covers immigration and new American communities for The Dispatch in partnership with Report for America. You can support work like his with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America here: bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.

pgill@dispatch.com

@pitaarji

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus’ Burmese Chin community wants consequences for Myanmar junta