In an age of competing causes and endless advocacy, it is all to easy to be cynical and believe that it’s nearly impossible for individuals to make a difference in the world. It is surprisingly rare -even for Christians- to meet inspiring individuals who do work that is truly good and revolutionary.
Thus it was truly a privilege to meet Rev. Dave Eubank- a former U.S. Army soldier, Eliya Samson- a Karen medic, founders of Free Burma Rangers, as well as the Eubank family at a briefing on Capitol Hill last Wednesday. They elaborated upon the history of this incredible organization, the current situation in Myanmar, and what needs to happen if the country is to move forward.
Free Burma Rangers began as a chance encounter between Eubanks and Samson, in which the two paired up to help injured refugees fleeing to Thailand. What began as two men and four backpacks grew to an organization with 59 active humanitarian relief teams that has treated over half a million victims and served over a million people. The organization’s Christian founders of this multi-ethnic, multi-religious group place an emphasis on love, justice, forgiveness and peace. Preserving these virtues, protecting the innocent and serving others in a war-torn nation, however, requires courage, fortitude, and the courageous volunteer medics and relief workers must be ready to defend, and even die for, the civilians under attack and displaced by the violence.
Eubanks repeated some of the positive news that has come from Burma in the past few years: elections were held in 2010 for the first time in over 20 years, there has been a decrease in fighting as well as censorship, and over 1,000 political prisoners have been released, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Both men were encouraged by these developments, though they remained skeptical of any permanent and lasting improvements towards the persecuted peoples in Myanmar solely because of such changes. Eubanks explained that despite the improvements in the situation, over 70 thousand people are still displaced, 311 prisoners of conscience are still behind bars, the Burmese army is using the current cease-fire to increase supplies at camps and build several new strategic camps as well.
There are also a variety of religious freedom violations across the country: in Chin state, Muslims- particularly those among the Rohingya people, face some of the worst religious persecution in the world, and Christians- particularly those outside of the capital, Rangoon- face religious restrictions as well. While such a world was hard for me to imagine, Eubanks explained that these kinds of religious prohibitions are natural; for the totalitarian state where the government is god, the free exercise of religion means allowing its citizens to answer to a higher power than the state.
He also cautioned the group, including staff of congressmen and women, to exercise prudence in US foreign policy with Myanmar, but not at the expense of forcefulness and conviction. Eubanks urged leaders to consider minority ethnic groups and ensure that foreign policies do not ignore the struggles they face. He also mentioned that while military action would be premature and would further hurt the innocent citizens of Myanmar, U.S. government leaders should stand up to the infractions of the Burmese government more forcefully for lasting change to come.
The long list of conditions and unknown variables determining the future of the various peoples of Myanmar made Samson skeptical of positive changes in the immediate future. This bleak outlook, even in the face of recent positive reforms, awakened me to the harsh realities of the road lying ahead of the Free Burma Rangers. However, Samson continued to remind the group that there will always be hope.
It is this tenacity and bravery in spite of everything that took my breath away and gave me hope- hope that they will never have to surrender, hope that there can be justice, peace and forgiveness in Myanmar, and hope that one day, these rangers will walk through a free Burma.