Many people have never heard of this country, or if they have, they know little about it. The government has guaranteed this cloak of secrecy over the last 60-plus years of military junta ruling by keeping much of the country closed, with severe and swift consequences for anyone they even suspect of questioning their laws or legitimacy. Secret police are located everywhere, spying on their own citizens and making those they feel may be a threat disappear, temporarily or permanently.
Where is this place? It is known as Myanmar, or more commonly, Burma. There are approximately 135 different ethnic tribes within its borders. The largest ethnic tribe is the Burmese, followed by the Karen (pronounced “Ka-RIN”). Since 1948 there has been an ongoing civil war as a result of an ethnic cleansing campaign sponsored by the Burmese government. This is currently the longest-running civil war in history.
The government systematically focuses its attacks on different regions and ethnic groups. The Burmese government has found that the most effective way to fight the ethnic resistance groups is to target helpless civilians. They have a history of rape, murder, and torture of innocent people. Even after 25 years in emergency services, I still find myself tearing up and becoming emotional at the victims’ stories.
Where is the United Nations? Where are the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to offer assistance? Both these groups are assisting with the overflowing refugee camps in neighboring countries; however, operating in Burma is very difficult, and working in the mountain regions is illegal (according to Burmese law), dangerous, and almost impossible if following the rules.
Lwei Ray Moo’s story
My wife, Lwei Ray Moo, is all too familiar with this seemingly impossible situation. This is her story:
I am an ethnic Sgaw Karen from the Karen State of Burma. First, I must apologize that in some cases I need to be vague with details, as the dangers are still very real for my family and friends.
Karen State is a region that borders Thailand in the south of Burma. My nine siblings and I were raised in the jungles. My family is primarily rice farmers, yet like many families, we had other responsibilities. My father was a former Karen Resistance soldier turned elected official, desiring to work at bringing peace and freedom to the people of Burma. My mother was a nurse giving aid, safety, and shelter to the sick and injured that were often brought into our jungle home.
Our parents instilled in us from a young age the importance of serving others above ourselves, as well as how to survive during difficult times while still sacrificing to care for others. I recall being a child and being forced to flee deep into the jungles two or three times a year as the Burmese government troops attacked us and other nearby villages.
The worst years were between 1994 and 2006. A heavy presence of government troops moved into our region, occupying our villages and burning our homes, churches, and crops. We were all forced to flee and conceal ourselves in the jungle, or else face an unknown fate which might include torture, rape, forced manual labor, or death. Land mines placed by the Burmese army often awaited the unfortunate villagers who tried to return to their homes.
Among many other concerns, I was dealing with the sadness of not being able to continue my education while on the run. I prayed so hard that God would allow me the opportunity to further my education someday. I felt with a proper education, I would be able to help my people and be more effective in bringing peace to Burma.
In 2000, this opportunity came to me in the form of a difficult and heartbreaking decision. I could further my education in a refugee camp on the Thailand side of the border, leaving my family behind. Despite my sadness, I chose to go to the camp. After graduating from high school, I attended some trade schools. I worked with NGOs within the refugee camp. I also worked as a medic assistant and agriculture trainer.
My mother and sisters attempted to flee to the refugee camp in 2006 with hundreds of others seeking safety, yet most were denied by the Thai border authorities, who felt the camps were already filled beyond maximum capacity. My mother, brothers, and sisters instead sought refuge in an internally displaced people (IDP) camp on the Burmese side of the border, yet even these were not safe from government attacks. It was here that my family received assistance from a humanitarian organization called the Free Burma Rangers (FBR).
In 2011, I had the opportunity to come to Lancaster, Pa., as a refugee. It was a difficult decision, but I accepted the opportunity, believing that it would one day put me in a better position to help my people, my country, and my family.
I met Sean in 2012 while he was working with Eastern Mennonite Missions. We often discussed our mutual callings to serve Jesus and work to bring love and peace to all the people of Burma. I was familiar with the Free Burma Rangers and the unusual yet effective manner in which they helped our people. Both Sean and I discussed our calling to serve with FBR.
Our family celebrated as I became a citizen of the United States in 2017. Besides the obvious reasons for us to celebrate, this also gave me the freedom to return to Southeast Asia to follow our calling.
The Free Burma Rangers
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR), the organization that aided my wife's family in the camp in Burma, seeks God's calling and sees no borders when it comes to love and humanity.
To see the Rangers would leave you wondering who they are and what their mission is. This is a 100 percent volunteer organization. Almost all of the volunteers come from Burmese tribes. While on the move, many are wearing some sort of camouflage or earth-tone clothing with canteens, machetes, rucksacks, and guitars strapped on their backs. Several also carry their traditional hand-woven shoulder bags with tassels.
If I didn’t know better, I would think this was some sort of military unit — however, it is not. It is a group of mostly ethnic humanitarian workers of many different tribes and backgrounds that deliver aid deep in the jungle war zones of Burma.
Many of these workers are Christian, but some are not. The organization does, however, operate on Christian beliefs and principles. Many of the workers come to know Jesus Christ and his teachings through their time with FBR and become baptized when they decide to accept Him and follow His teachings.
Many of these adult volunteers, young and old, are victims of the war and trauma themselves. Some are former soldiers looking for a different way to combat evil, a way that does not require them to fight flesh and blood with violence, but instead to engage evil with love, kindness, and mercy. FBR are the first responders of the Burmese jungles when there is truly no one else.
Lwei Ray Moo has shared about her calling to work with FBR; here is my story. In 2013, when I began an Eastern Mennonite Missions assignment among the Burmese refugee population in Lancaster, Pa., I found what it meant to “have a heart” for a people group. From the first time I met my friends, I loved them. They were kind, gracious, and showed me love without even knowing me. The common greeting in the culture is “Come eat rice,” and that is what we did, lots and lots of rice.
I had an opportunity to go to Southeast Asia to visit the Free Burma Rangers in 2014. I arrived at the FBR training camp only four days after losing my mother to cancer. I had planned this trip for almost a year to learn more about this organization I was considering serving with. Now I sat deep in the jungle outside of a bamboo hut, feeling broken and questioning if I should even have come.
As I sat grieving, two rangers who were brothers came over and asked where I was from. I told them I came from Pennsylvania in the U.S. They explained to me that their younger sister had been resettled as a refugee somewhere in the U.S., but they had lost touch with her.
When they told me their sister’s name, I recognized her from the Burmese refugee community I’d worked with in Lancaster. Within minutes, I was able to reach out via social media and quickly put the brothers and the rest of their family back in contact with their sister!
This happened time and time again on this trip, as God used my connections to reunite families and friends. I suddenly knew why, despite my mourning, God had continued to call me on this expedition. And I knew my calling: to share His love.
Preparing to serve
Lwei Ray Moo and I both feel called to serve by showing our friends and enemies this love. We feel that as we fulfill our calling to work with Free Burma Rangers, we are to minister love, mercy, peace, and forgiveness.
We both have roles awaiting us when our fundraising is complete. I will be working in medical logistics, primarily in a neighboring country, running medical supplies to the border for the teams and helping coordinate and transport sick and injured villagers — many of them children — for further treatment. With her gift for languages, Lwei Ray Moo will act as a patient advocate in local clinics and hospitals.
Sean, Lwei Ray Moo, and their daughter Bithiah are currently living in Vermont. They are members of Marietta Community Chapel in Lancaster, Pa. Sean is currently working for the Municipal Public Safety Department as a communication specialist. Lwei Ray Moo is a homemaker and stay-at-home mother with two-year-old Bithiah. They all enjoy the outdoors, whether resting in a hammock or hiking while admiring the Lord’s beautiful creations. The family hopes to be in Thailand by early fall 2018.