How one Christian leader works for hope in a hopeless time

Mana speaking
Mana Tun speaking at November 2022 MCC UN Student Seminar. Photo by Chris Rice.

Feb. 1 marked the two-year anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. In the days and weeks after the 2021 coup, Mana Tun, a lecturer at a Christian institution for higher education, joined the protests, soon seeing people shot in the streets. In following months, he worked with hundreds of pastors, providing networks of support.

Prior to the military takeover, Tun taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Christian social ethics and peace and conflict studies. In work supported by MCC, he also led a local peace education and peacebuilding organization, working with grassroots communities, churches and interfaith networks.

In this interview with UN Office director Chris Rice, Tun talks about the pain he has seen and experienced, the current situation, how his understanding of God and hope has change, and how to support people in Myanmar working for change.

Chris Rice: Two years after the coup, how would you describe the current situation in Myanmar?

Mana Tun: It is getting worse and worse. Killing and violence by the military is an everyday phenomenon. And I hate to say it, but it is becoming normalized, and it is really very worrying for me. The military is advancing air strikes on civilian areas to create fear. And the health system is really bad. I have heard of many mothers and babies dying in childbirth.

What would you say about the action of the UN and of other countries?

For the people who suffered too much, people feel there is not enough pressure on the military leaders to restrain themselves. Some people call the UN “the United Nothing.”

During the year and a half when you were in Myanmar after the coup, what were you doing to help Christian leaders walk through the time of darkness?

I met hundreds of pastors online. We shared our feelings, we wrestled with our theology, and what we, our churches and our families were facing. Pastors were being asked to help families find sons and daughters who were arrested and disappeared and to reclaim dead bodies of their children. We also reached out to the most impacted people with basic food and necessities. The ministers are in a very challenging situation: how you pray for a person, for a family, whose family member got arrested or killed? Some pastors went to the military on behalf of their youth saying they need to be released. Some pastors had to run away because of their involvement in some protests. They feel very bad leaving their churches behind.

Can you talk about what it was like for you? What did you see or experience that was most difficult?

Every day I woke up fearing what could happen to me or my family. At one point I had to hide for a week. The reason was that one of my friends was arrested – he and I had been supporting displaced families. One of his children told me on the phone that she would not eat or drink until her father came home. Two pastors risked their lives and went to the military about this situation. We thanked God that two weeks later my friend was released. Another difficult moment, among many, was while I was leading a group of about 30 pastors from the same region for resilience building. While we were meeting online, news about a pastor being tortured to death on an outdoor public street interrupted us. The pastor was a colleague of mine. We all felt the fear and terror of someone being killed who was close to us.

Mana, with the suffering you’ve described, how has it changed your understanding of hope?

Before the military takeover I was a hopeful person. As a Christian educator in a challenging country, I believed that things would get better. Hope was a big part of why I worked for peace and human rights in many parts of the country. With the support of MCC, for nearly 10 years I was working with church leaders, talking about peace and how we can contribute to the transformation of conflicts in family, society and the country.

When the military coup took place, I was fighting against the coup, protesting and organizing. And as almost every able person protested on the street — millions of people, nonviolently — I hoped the military would listen to the will of the people. But I saw people being shot in the head, the streets soaked with blood. How could these things happen? Months went by, and now years, and things have gotten worse and worse. There were rumors the UN would do something, or Southeast Asian nations. But killings increased, air strikes increased. There was daily struggle for basic food, prices rose, and all sectors of life got worse and worse.

Eventually "hope" almost became a word I was not using or hearing. And that is very difficult. Being hopeless, yet at the same time, being active, being connected to the people who look for something to be hopeful. That is one of the most challenging things.

I still believe in God. I still believe in the redemption and love of Jesus Christ. But to be honest, there were times I was tempted, am tempted, to quit. To question God. Many others face this. I can almost say that God abandoned us. That God was not there. But I could not help myself holding on to the faith that God still loves. That God still is with me and with this country in Myanmar. I would say I am with God and asking a lot of questions of God at the same time. I am becoming closer to saying that God is struggling with us, that in the atrocities, the violence, the evils around us, that God is suffering there. I don't have words to describe how I feel. But I feel like God is also “unable,” on the cross. The omnipotent God is suffering. In a very intimate way. I see God mourning, crying. Myanmar is in the moment where Jesus is on the cross, crying out. And I think that particularly God is at work with the people. At the same time, I don’t dismiss those who say that God will rise up one day to save us, will do amazing things. Christians in Myanmar are experiencing God in different ways.

Mana, on this two-year anniversary of so much pain in Myanmar, what final word would you like to offer?

Amidst so much suffering for millions and millions of people inside Myanmar, they are living their life no matter what. Thousands and thousands of people are risking their lives to remind us that this situation must not become normalized. I have many friends who ask me to help them find support for daily needs for families — food and medicine. As I study here in the U.S. now, I think of the many children whose education has been suspended. But in remote areas, well-trained schoolteachers who have run away from the military are organizing themselves to teach in villages, working with local people. This is part of their civil disobedience. But they need books and classroom materials. There are also doctors and nurses doing the same thing. Please find ways to send support to those struggling and resilient people.

In fall 2022, Mana Tun started doctoral studies in Christian social ethics and peace at the University of Denver and Illif School of Theology. One UN body providing a glimmer of hope to people in Myanmar suffering under military rule is the Independent Investigate Mechanism for Myanmar, which provides protected channels to provide first-hand evidence of serious international crimes and violations of international law.