Political visions of a humanitarian aid group in Karen (Kayin) state, Myanmar

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.

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Religion is a privileged site through which to study how to make loss more bearable and re-constructed lives more comfortable (Johnson and Werbner 2010). Religion is intimately linked to involuntary mobility: it assists in crossing boundaries and is part of a process of reconstructing the self and re-imagining the community (Tweed 2006). In looking at religion not only as a tool of existential struggle, but also as a vehicle of meaning making, border crossing, and the kinetics of homemaking, we can understand religion as a political project and political aspiration in transnational context and space (Horstmann and Jung 2015: 1-21). In this post, I highlight the way that displacement and human suffering in Southeastern Myanmar is used for a missionary calling within a faith-based humanitarian service group.

 

The Free Burma Rangers

My case study introduces you to the humanitarian service group “Free Burma Rangers” (hereafter FBR) that provides emergency health and counseling services to the internally displaced in the protracted civil wars in Burma (Myanmar). The FBR was founded by David Eubank, son of veteran missionary Alan Eubank. David used to be a special envoy with the US army, and has been stationed with the Wa people. After seeing the suffering of the Karen people from the military assault imposed upon them by the Burmese military regime, and driven by his Christian mission, he decided to combine all elements in his career – humanitarian, missionary and military – to ally with senior Karen from the armed wing of the political organization of the Karen – to help wounded Karen villagers with emergency healthcare. Therefore, he trained Karen nurses in medical service with financial support coming from private donations. Teams of the FBR were established in all frontier regions of Myanmar, saving hundreds of lives, also documenting human rights abuses.

The commitment to help the wounded places the FBR in line with the better known Médecins Sans Frontières (MFS), or Doctors without Borders. But while the well-known Doctors without Borders’ principle is secular human rights, the Rangers perceive themselves in a sacred struggle of good against evil. While MSF aims at remaining impartial, the Rangers take sides with the ethnic minorities residing in the Southeast Asian massif and walk with the ethnic armies. MSF took their origin from a leftist and secular critique of capitalism; American Protestant Christianity drives the FBR. MSF only uses medicine and scalpels, the Rangers are armed (they normally avoid contact with the Burmese army, they are willing to stand ground with the displaced villagers and to defend them if necessary).

The doctors of the FBR do not cling to the old religion of Karen Baptism in the homeland, but model their new faith by membership in an American humanitarian organization (the FBR) and along the lines of American Christianity, an organization that crosses into Myanmar from neighboring countries and supplies the Karen freedom fighters with nurses. Further, while new scholarship highlights the presence of reverse missionization from the South in the North, we have a complex case of American missionaries working hand-in hand with Karen missionaries spreading the gospel and lending a hand to the wounded Kurds in Iraq and Nuba people in South Sudan. Not only in epistemic ways, they follow the colonial pattern of the Karen converting to American Baptism and allying with the British, but the resettled and outbound Karen also transfer specific traditions of Karen missionization to other conflict-ridden areas around the globe.

Humanitarian organizations such as FBR establish alternative networks and actors who monitor the world for human rights violations, making public important evidence of atrocities and bringing them to the attention of the media. They want more than just to provide medical help; they want to give back dignity and provide a bit of normality in a context of permanent crisis. The FBR crucially not only provide medical assistance, but also solidarity with the refugees.

 

The narrative of heroism: David Eubank and the FBR

The narrative of heroism is highlighted in the staged performance of dramatic images on video clips circulated among American and global church congregations.

The family is at the center of Christian discourse on moral values. David is in no way a lone adventurer as he stands for an imagined global family of Christians. David’s family is center stage in all of the Rangers’ cinematic presentations. His wife, Karen, his two teenage daughters and his small son are all actively involved in the Rangers’ activities and are outspoken actors and humanitarians in their own right. David’s wife is a teacher. She and her Karen team, besides being on David’s side in the war-zone, provide the displaced and traumatized villagers with entertainment through the “Good Life Club” which aims to encourage the villagers through making handicrafts, playing children’s games, singing songs and learning Bible stories. The “Good Life Club” is about proselytizing in a playful way. Young people all over America prepare Christmas gifts, clothes, woolen caps and other useful things for the villagers in need. David’s wife, Karen, and her team members lead encouraging prayers. One of the main principles of the Rangers is that displaced villagers should feel that there is someone to assist them in times of desperation.

FBR’s promotional clip used in public relations to spread the news about FBR’s heroic struggle in Myanmar shows David’s teenage daughter riding a white horse, making its way confidently through the deep jungle. The white horse exemplifies both the purity of the mission, its noble task and the family’s total dedication to the cause. David’s daughter riding visually symbolizes the possibility of running away from the danger zone.

The devotional experience of servicing the FBR propels a specific personal trajectory in the mind of their staff and places them into a global humanitarian field. Of course, it also places them into a global religious field. In this sense, humanitarian assistance becomes, in Csordas’ words (Csordas 2009), a portable religious practice that in dramatic fashion enlarges the radius of the participating while taking them hostage in a sort of crusade that brought the Rangers into great danger. Indeed, some Rangers lost their lives in action.

The key religious expression is prayer. The prayer is geared to action and personalized to the Rangers. The Rangers are part of a prayer group that offers “prayers for Burma” by appointment in Myanmar, Thailand, the USA and many other places in the world. David begins every interview with a prayer, emphasizing that Jesus has sent him. In a trailer for the FBR, he asks God why he has been sent to this journey and why there is so much suffering in the world. The prayer is best understood as a ritual in which suffering is symbolically expressed as a moral outrage that requires action. By imposing his prayer on all faith communities in Myanmar, he represents himself as a leader who knows the way out of tyranny and to the light.

I see David’s concern – “What I am doing here?” – as a springboard to explore how the Rangers use medical, military and missionary rhetoric to legitimize their intervention in a space of warfare and crisis. To be sure, the Rangers are in a powerful position in their relationship with vulnerable displaced Karen villagers, especially if compared to earlier campaigns of missionization by American Baptists, campaigns of missionization among the Montagnards of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, among the Hmong of Northern Laos, and among North Korean defectors in the Chinese borderland with North Korea (Jung 2015).

The FBR represent an important case study to unpack the notions of humanity and humanitarianism, and to highlight the ideology of war against evil that is used not only by Eubank, but by evangelical Christianity worldwide. Amidst this for humanity and justice rests the drastically expanded mobility of the Karen people involved in local and global humanitarian operations, as well as in new religious predicaments (Horstmann 2017).

 

Concluding Remarks

The humanitarian and political intervention of the FBR makes them a political force directly involved with the violence in Myanmar. While donations enable the FBR to purchase equipment, medical supplies and to recruit personnel, ordinary Karen villagers hardly have a voice in the Rangers’ media representations, appearing only as passive and happy recipients of the Rangers’ generosity. The transition from a victim of the atrocity to a Ranger and nurse is introduced as a natural pathway by the FBR. It is a conversion process in a double sense. The young women and men participating in a mission give themselves to Jesus (making a transition from Animism) and to the Rangers (making a transition from the jungle village). Conversion can thus be understood in multiple senses, not only conversion to a religion, but also to a lifestyle or to an identity. In this sense, the Rangers may well be one opportunity for young Karen peoples to find a home, belonging, the spirit of teamwork and potentially, martyrdom and sacrifice. These young and displaced Karen convert to the imagined community of a global Christian community, firmly based in the imagination of the American and Christian political thought that has identified the Karen as worthy of spiritual support. The FBR are expanding, identifying new enemies and new vulnerable groups that seek their military and medical assistance. As part of the Rangers, young women and men also join a political project and missionary adventure and thereby develop a new self, a new way of seeing the world and acting on its future.

 

References

Csordas, Thomas J. (ed.) (2009). Transnational Transcendence. Essays on Religion and Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Horstmann, A., & Jung, J-H. (Eds.) (2015). Building Noah’s Ark for Refugees, Migrants and Religious Communities. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. (Contemporary Anthropology of Religion).

Johnson, Mark and Pnina Werbner (eds.) 2010. Diasporic Encounters, Sacred Journeys: Ritual, Normativity and the Religious Imagination among International Asian Migrant Women, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 3-4

Tweed, Thomas (2006). Crossing and Dwelling. A Theory of Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

 

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