Reaching the Nations International Church Growth Almanac

Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.

Burma

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Burma

Geography

Area: 676,578 square km. Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, occupies a large area of Southeastern Asia by the Indian Ocean and borders China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. The southwest monsoon occurs from June to September, whereas the northeast monsoon lasts from December to April. Milder temperatures and less rainfall characterize the winter, and the summer consists of tropical, hot, and rainy weather. Mangroves line many of the coastal areas, especially near Yangon. Flood plains dominate the terrain around Yangon and rugged highlands cover the northeastern areas bordering Thailand, Laos, and China. The northernmost areas reach into the Himalayas. Mountain ranges stretch along the Indian border from the northernmost areas down to the Indian Ocean. The Irrawaddy River flows north to south, traveling from the Himalayas and emptying into the ocean by Yangon. The Salween is another major river that cuts through the highlands and empties by Maulmain. A strip of land travels southward from the Salween River down to the Isthmus of Kra with many small islands along the coast. Frequent earthquakes and cyclones are natural hazards, the latter especially in the Irrawaddy Delta. The greatest environmental issues are deforestation and pollution. Myanmar is administratively divided into seven divisions, seven states, and one union territory.

Peoples

Burman: 68%

Shan: 9%

Karen: 7%

Rakhine: 4%

Chinese: 3%

Indian: 2%

Mon: 2%

Other: 5%

Burmans constitute the majority and populate coastal regions from the Bangladeshi border to the Irrawaddy Delta, the plains along the Irrawaddy River from Yangon northward to the middle of Sagaing Division and southern Kachin State, and coastal areas and islands of Tanintharyi Division. The Shan reside in the highlands located in Shan State. Karen populate areas along the Thai border in Kayah and Kayin States and reside along the border of Thailand all the way south to the Isthmus of Kra. Rakhine live in Rakhine State. The Chinese have a presence in many large cities and have populations concentrated in a couple areas along the Chinese border in Kachin State. Indians primarily live in Yangon and Mandalay. The Mon populate the Mon State. Other notable minority ethnic groups include Chin, Thai, Va, De’ang, Jingpo, Lisu, Naga, Lahu, and Akha.

Population: 55,622,506 (July 2018)

Annual Growth Rate: 0.89% (2018)

Fertility Rate: 2.13 children born per woman (2018)

Life Expectancy: 67.0 male, 70.3 female (2018)

Languages: Burmese (58%), Karen dialects (6%), Shan (6%), Chinese (2%), other or unspecified (28%). Burmese is the official language. One hundred twenty languages are spoken in Myanmar. Languages with over one million native speakers include Burmese (32 million), Karen dialects (3.2 million), Shan (3.2 million), and Chinese (1.0 million).

Literacy: 75.6% (2016)

History

Various ethnic groups have lived in Myanmar for thousands of years. The first known kingdom that encompassed most of present-day Myanmar was the Bagan or Pagan Kingdom between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The Mongols invaded in the late thirteenth century. Following their departure, the region fragmented into smaller kingdoms. Larger kingdoms began to assimilate the smaller kingdoms in the sixteenth century, notably under the Taungoo Kingdom. The Konbaung Dynasty expanded Myanmar into the Assam region of India in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The British took control of Myanmar during the nineteenth century and did not conquer the entire territory for sixty-two years. Myanmar was administrated by British controlled India until 1937 when it was made into its own colony. Independence from Great Britain took place in 1948 and was quickly followed by single party military rule. Ne Win ruled from 1962 to 1988, when he was overthrown by the military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the multiparty elections in 1990, but the junta refused to relinquish their power and placed the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for the majority of the time until present. Anti-government demonstrations and civil disorder occurred in the fall of 2007, which were quickly suppressed with the deaths of at least thirteen and the imprisonment of thousands of protesters. Pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the demonstrations. Cyclone Nargis caused widespread devastation in May 2008 and left at least 80,000 dead. A new constitution was adopted in May 2008 by public referendum as a result of the ruling party’s roadmap to democracy initiative.  Elections were held in 2010 for the first time since 1990 and again in 2012, although the elections were criticized for irregularities by international observers. Political reforms in the early 2010s included many developments such as the release of many political prisoners, signing cease-fire agreements with many of the country’s armed groups, reopening of the country to the international community for trade, and reducing restrictions on freedom of the press. In 2015, the NLD elected Htin Kyaw as president followed by Win Wyint in 2018.

Attacks on security forces in 2016 and 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in northern Rakhine State culminated in a significant military campaign in the region in which more than 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid widespread reports of human rights abuses and thousands of deaths. The federal government’s aggressive and violent military operation has been regarded by other nations and international agencies as ethnic cleansing of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. Myanmar has refused to cooperate with outsider observers to investigate these allegations.

Culture

Theravada Buddhism continues to heavily influence Burmese culture. At times, there has been intolerance of Christian groups. There are a large number of pagodas and monasteries that hold cultural significance. Soccer is the most popular sport. Cuisine has similarities with Southeast Asia and includes seafood, noodles, rice, and soup. Many live in poverty, while the small elite are historically been alleged to earn much of their money through the narcotics trade. Historically, women received a large amount of respect and rights. Overall, Burmese are friendly and warm people.

Economy

GDP per capita: $6,300 (2017) [10.5% of U.S.]

Human Development Index: 0.578 (2017)

Corruption Index: 29 (2018)

The ruling junta, widely criticized for corruption by international agencies, poorly managed the economy and failed to attract greater foreign investment in a nation rich in natural resources until a civilian-led government was established in 2011. Although significant progress has occurred with economic development and measures to reduce corruption, the economy remains underdeveloped despite many opportunities for growth. Rural areas have experienced essentially no improvement in economic conditions despite the restoration of civilian rule. One-quarter of the national population is estimated to live below the poverty line. Agriculture accounts for 24% of the GDP. Primary agriculture products include rice, pulses, and beans. Services claim 40% of the GDP, whereas industry comprises 36% of the GDP. Primary industries include food processing, timber and wood products, mining, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals. Commonly mined minerals and resources include copper, tin, tungsten, iron, oil, gems, oil, and natural gas. Primary exports include natural gas, wood products, and agricultural products. China, Thailand, and Singapore are the primary trade partners.

Myanmar previously ranked as one of the worst countries worldwide for corruption. However, perceived corruption levels have markedly improved in the 2010s to levels comparable to Laos, Nepal, and Mexico. Common illegal activity includes drug trafficking, illegal logging, and human trafficking. Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium. Human trafficking occurs with neighboring nations as well as between rural communities and industrial centers for industrial, commercial, and sex trade purposes.

Faiths

Buddhist: 87.9%

Christian: 6.2%

Muslim: 3.0%

Animist: 0.8%

Hindu: 0.5%

Other: 0.2%

None: 0.1%

Christians

Denominations – Members – Congregations

Evangelicals – 2,517,184          

Catholic – 610,000

Seventh Day Adventists – 33,329 – 342

Jehovah’s Witnesses – 4,499 – 82

Latter-day Saints – 250 – 3

Religion

Most Burmese are Theravada Buddhists. Muslims comprise 3-4% of the population.[1] Muslims mainly belong to the Rohingya, Malay, Panthay (Burmese Chinese), and Burmese Indian ethnic groups. Seventy-five percent (75%) of Christians are Baptists, and the remainder mainly consists of Catholics. Many of the Christians are from ethnic minority groups (Chin, Kachin, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Kachin) rather than the Burmese majority.

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 18th (2019)

Religious freedom is mentioned in the constitution, but the government retains the right to limit religious freedom of any groups and often imposes restrictions. There are significant prejudices and abuses of religious freedom. Local Christians oftentimes have not been allowed to proselyte. Preferential treatment of Buddhists and persecution of South Asian Muslims frequently occurs, particularly the Rohingya. The greatest suppression of religious freedom occurs when religious groups coupled political motives in opposition to the federal government, particularly among traditionally Muslim or Christian ethnic groups. Some of the most significant oppression of Christians has occurred in the Wa Self-Administered Division. The greatest religious persecution has been the federal government’s ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State of the Rohingya people, which has been regarded as a genocide. Approximately three-quarters of a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution and violence.[2]

Largest Cities

Urban: 30.6% (2018)

Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyitaw, Taunggyi, Bago, Mawlamyine, Myitkyina, Monywa, Lashio, Pathein, Pyin Oo Lwin, Pyay, Kale, Myeik, Myawaddy, Meiktila, Taungoo, Sittwe.

Cities in bold have no congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One of the eighteen most populous cities has a Church congregation. Seventeen percent (17%) of the national population lives in the eighteen most populous cities.

Church History

Myanmar was assigned to the Singapore Mission in 1969 and then to the Thailand Bangkok Mission in 1973.[3] The first Burmese members joined the Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Burmese members traveled to the Thai border and were taught and baptized in Thailand before returning to Myanmar. Myanmar has been assigned to the Thailand Bangkok Mission for many decades. The first young, full-time missionaries were assigned to Myanmar in February 2014. However, these missionaries taught others only by member referral until January 2016 when open proselytism was first permitted. In 2018, Apostle Elder Gary E. Stevenson visited members and missionaries in Yangon.[4] The Church continued to appear to lack official recognition from the government as of mid-2019, but the Church likely has registered with the government in order to assign foreign, full-time missionaries.

Membership Growth

Church Membership: ~250 (2018)

In the late 2000s, six refugees from Myanmar were members of the Haven Ward in the South Salt Lake Stake.[5] In 2009, significant Karen-speaking membership growth prompted the creation of the first Karen-speaking branch in Utah. Fifty members belonged to the branch at its creation, and over fifty converts join the Church during the following six months. In addition to Karen, members also spoke Burmese and Karenni. Sacrament attendance for the branch has climbed to the 170s.[6] Approximately 300 Burmese refugees joined the Church in Utah between 2008 and 2012, [7] Missionaries reported sizable numbers of Karen refugees who attended church services in the late 2000s and early 2010s in Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington.

Several Burmese members have joined the Church in South Asia. Kham Kho Chin Thang went to Malaysia in the early 2000s where he joined the Church and introduced the Church to his fiancé, who also joined. They later returned to Myanmar and remained faithful despite a limited Church presence. The couple attended the temple in Hong Kong in 2006 and continues to reside in Myanmar.[8]

Due to the status of the government and lack of official Church presence, the Church does not report official membership totals. However, reports from Church News articles and full-time missionaries suggest that year-end-2018 membership was likely at least 250, or one in 222,490 people.

Congregational Growth

Branches: 3 Groups: 1? (2018)

The first missionaries arrived in Myanmar in the 1840s and 1850s and preached in Yangon. The branch was shortly thereafter discontinued and later recreated in the 1880s. However, the small branch was again discontinued prior to 1900.[9]

A branch in Yangon has functioned for many years. A second branch was organized in under the Thailand Bangkok Mission named the Thailand Bangkok Mission Burmese Branch for members living in remote locations. Members likely meet in small groups in additional locations, perhaps including Mandalay. One member group meets in northern Myanmar and has infrequent visits and may not be authorized to hold sacrament meetings. A second branch in Yangon called the North Dagon Branch was created in 2018 after a couple years of preparation.

Activity and Retention

Church attendance for the Yangon Branch increased from approximately twenty-five in the early 2010s to ninety in early 2018 and approximately 130 in March 2018. More than 175 people attended a special member devotional in March 2018.[10] In May 2018, full-time missionaries reported that as many as forty people who were contemplating membership attended church services. Local members appear to exhibit high self-sufficiency and activity, and member activity and convert retention rates are high. Total active membership is estimated at 150, or 60% of total church membership.

Language Materials

Languages with Latter-day Saint Scripture: Burmese, English, Chinese (traditional and simplified characters).

Approval for the translation of all Latter-day Saint scriptures into Burmese was announced in 2017.[11] Translation of the Book of Mormon into Burmese began in late 2015. Approximately half of the Burmese translation of the Book of Mormon was available online on the Church’s website in August 2019.[12] Translations of Church materials are limited to Gospel Fundamentals, The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, a couple basic guidebook for leadership, and a few missionary materials. General Conference talks have been translated into Burmese starting in the 2000s. All Latter-day Saint scriptures and most Church materials are available in traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

Meetinghouses

Meetinghouses for the two branches in Yangon appear to meet in rented facilities. Groups, if any operate, likely meet in the privacy of members’ homes.

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church has conducted at least 195 humanitarian and development projects in Myanmar since 1985,[13] with most of these projects occurring after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.[14] In recent years, the Church has conducted Benson Food initiatives, clean water projects, community projects, emergency response, maternal and newborn care, and refugee response. Water projects have occurred for many years in locations such as in Kayin State. Senior missionaries donated 200 school bags for children at a local monastery. LDS Charities have donated funds to bring clean water for local hospitals. The Church has provided employment and opportunities to learn English to Burmese refugees in Utah.[15]

 

Opportunities, Challenges, and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The Church has made significant progress in establishing the Church in Myanmar despite the restrictive nature of the government, negative prejudices against religious minorities, a lack of Burmese translations of Church materials, and political instability in many areas of the country. The Church carefully honors and obeys the law in Myanmar. Given recent progress with the Church in Yangon, the Church may obtain government recognition within the foreseeable future. It is unclear what barriers may prevent this recognition. The Church likely has obtained registration to operate in the country, although the Church continues to maintain a sensitive presence in Myanmar with no reported meetinghouse locations, membership totals, or congregational totals available to the public.

Cultural Issues

Persecution of Christians from Buddhists and the government is a major cultural issue that has persisted over the past sixty years. Most have little familiarity with Christianity. Deeply entrenched negative societal attitudes about religious minorities, such as Christians and Muslims, poses challenges for receptivity among Buddhists. The Church appears to have few, if any, members among many of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority groups. Poverty and moderate literacy rates pose challenges for economic self-sufficiency and testimony development.

National Outreach

Yangon is the only city that has full-time missionaries assigned and official branches. Thus, approximately 10% of the national population is reached by the Church. However, Yangon’s 5.5 million inhabitants are minimally reached by current missionary efforts due to the metropolitan area’s large population and only two Latter-day Saint branches that meet within the city. Moreover, the Church does not publish information on its meetinghouse locations online due to its sensitive presence in the country. As a result, some may be unable to locate the Church unless they meet full-time missionaries. Significant increases in church membership and young, single members who serve full-time missions presents good opportunities to open member groups or additional small branches in unreached or lesser-reached areas of Yangon. The organization of a separate mission for Myanmar’s 55.6 million people would help significantly augment mission resources allocated to the country and help better explore and plan outreach expansion efforts to additional cities and administrative divisions.

Political instability and distance pose challenges for the Church to reach areas in Myanmar outside of Yangon – many of which present good opportunities for growth. Several sizable minority ethnic groups have been receptive to Protestant missionaries, such as the Chin and Karen, yet the Church has not established a presence in their native homelands. Individuals from these ethnic groups who join the Church in Yangon, remain active to obtain leadership experience, and receive the Melchizedek Priesthood (for men) present the most realistic means for the Church to organize member groups in additional areas of the country. Nevertheless, the large rural population will be a challenge for the Church to reach in the coming decades due to distance, illiteracy, poverty, and accessibility.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Member activity rates in Myanmar appears among the highest in Asia. However, it is unclear whether most Latter-day Saints in Myanmar, who have appeared to have been members of the Church for less than a few years, will remain active in the long term. Member activity is limited due to the distribution of some members in areas outside of Yangon. The activity-level and devotion of these isolated members is largely unknown.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The Church does not appear to have faced issues with differing ethnic groups assimilating into the same congregations. Challenges may occur if the Church experiences greater growth with differences between Burmese and other ethnic groups. However, ethnic assimilation issues have appeared unremarkable from returned missionary reports.

Language Issues

Church meetings are held in Burmese. Sunday School is conducted in Burmese. Members fluent in both Burmese and English have assisted senior missionaries in traveling around the country and translating Church materials in the past. Delays in the translation of Latter-day Saint scriptures into Burmese has pose challenges for comprehension of Church teachings and testimony development.

With the exception of Church materials translated into Chinese, the lack of church resources in any minority language materials also limits outreach and the doctrinal understanding of members from minority groups. The increase of Karen speaking membership in Salt Lake City may necessitate the translation of Church materials in Karen and other minority languages that could be utilized in Myanmar. However, no such plans have been publicly announced.

Missionary Service

The Church in Myanmar benefits from high levels of full-time missionary service among fledgling membership. Nine members from the Yangon Branch were serving full-time missions in March 2018, with an additional twenty young adults preparing to complete missionary applications. At the time, there were eight young, full-time missionaries and two senior missionary couples assigned to Myanmar.[16] In September 2018, there were ten young, full-time missionaries assigned to Yangon. Multiple senior missionary couples serve at a time in Myanmar. Senior couples primary work on humanitarian and development projects and also provide some training and mentoring for Burmese members.

Leadership

In 2006, a senior missionary served as the president of the Yangon Branch. The second Burmese missionary to serve a mission from Myanmar began his mission in 2007. Local leadership continues to be very limited and limits greater membership growth outside of Yangon. However, there has been some improvements with leadership development as evidenced by the creation of the North Dagon Branch in 2018.

Temple

Myanmar pertains to the Hong Kong China Temple District. Some Burmese members have been to the temple to receive their endowments. The trip for members to Hong Kong is expensive and demanding on time and distance. Myanmar will likely be reassigned to the Bangkok Thailand Temple once it is dedicated, which will reduce cost and travel time.

Comparative Growth

The Church in Myanmar has experienced some of the most rapid growth in Asia among countries with fewer than 500 members. The Church in Laos has similarly sized membership and also two branches that meet within the most populous city. Government restrictions and a sensitive Church presence has appeared to improve member activity rates, convert retention rates, and member-missionary participation in both countries. The Church in Myanmar has achieved greater progress than in Bangladesh where the Church has experienced stagnant growth for many years. The Church in Nepal experienced similar growth trends with the Church in Myanmar but has struggled in recent years due to the emigration of returned missionaries.

Baptist and Catholic denominations gained the majority of their converts and established themselves prior to the rise of the current government. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have seen continued growth and have numerous congregations throughout the country. These denominations benefit from local members who carry on ecclesiastical duties with little to no assistance from outside the country. Christian groups report increases in membership, but a lack of religious freedom limits growth. Nonetheless, the continued expansion of such groups demonstrates the potential for considerable Latter-day Saint growth through member-missionary efforts even under challenging conditions.

Future Prospects

Prospects appear favorable for continued Church growth in Yangon due to recent successes with steady numbers of new converts joining the Church, increasing numbers of active members, the creation of a second branch in Yangon, high member activity and convert retention rates, and the forthcoming translation of more Church materials into Burmese. Additional member groups or branches appear likely to be organized to improve accessibility to congregations and spark greater growth. Local members who complete full-time missionary service and return and remain in Myanmar thereafter present the greatest opportunities for expansion and growth. Branches in Yangon may be organized into a district once there is sufficient local leadership to staff both branch and district callings. The Church may organize member groups in additional cities, primarily in areas under control of the federal government. However, expansion of the Church into additional cities appears more likely once a separate mission is organized in Myanmar. Nevertheless, the Church will need to secure full government recognition and become more self-sufficient in its local leadership to better prepare for future opportunities for growth. Translation of Church materials into additional languages, such as Karen, appears needed. However, given trends in language translation efforts among minority languages, such prospects appear dim for the foreseeable future notwithstanding good opportunities for these materials to be utilized in missionary efforts.


[1] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Burma.” U.S. Department of State. 21 June 2019. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/burma/

[2] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Burma.” U.S. Department of State. 21 June 2019. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/burma/

[3] “The Church in Thailand,” Friend, Apr 1975, 42.

[4] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623

[5] Askar, Jamshid. “Part of the family: Mentors kit close ties with their changes,” LDS Church News, 13 May 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57324/Part-of-the-family-Mentors-knit-close-ties-with-their-charges.html

[6] Stettler, Jeremiah. “Finding refuge—and resources—in the LDS Church,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2010.1.1 http://www.sltrib.com/lds/ci_14095518

[7] “Young Asian refugees bond with Scouting Troop 1262.” LDS Church News. 16 June 2012. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2012-06-16/young-asian-refugees-bond-with-scouting-troop-1262-51233

[8] “The search for a better life,” News from the Church, 2 July 2008. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?locale=0&sourceId=64df050a380ea110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=7cecc8fe9c88d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

[9] “India,” Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac, p. 502–4

[10] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623

[11] “Approved Scripture Translation Projects.” Letter from the First Presidency dated 9 October 2017. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/bc/content/ldsorg/church/news/2017/11/2-15159_000_letter.pdf?lang=eng

[12] Burmese Translation of the Book of Mormon. www.churchofjesuschrist.org, Accessed 27 August 2019. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/1-ne/1?lang=mya

[13] “Where We Work.” Latter-day Saint Charities. Accessed 27 August 2019. https://www.latterdaysaintcharities.org/where-we-work

[14] Weaver, Sarah Jane. “Unprecedented year,” LDS Church News, 14 January 2006. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48384/Unprecedented-year.html

[15] McDonald, Ryan. “‘Opportunity is opening for me’ — Refugees learn English, job skills at Deseret Industries.” LDS Church News. 24 August 2013. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2013-08-24/opportunity-is-opening-for-me-refugees-learn-english-job-skills-at-deseret-industries-44443

[16] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623

 

Geography

Area: 676,578 square km. Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar, occupies a large area of Southeastern Asia by the Indian Ocean and borders China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. The southwest monsoon occurs from June to September, whereas the northeast monsoon lasts from December to April. Milder temperatures and less rainfall characterize the winter, and the summer consists of tropical, hot, and rainy weather. Mangroves line many of the coastal areas, especially near Yangon. Flood plains dominate the terrain around Yangon and rugged highlands cover the northeastern areas bordering Thailand, Laos, and China. The northernmost areas reach into the Himalayas. Mountain ranges stretch along the Indian border from the northernmost areas down to the Indian Ocean. The Irrawaddy River flows north to south, traveling from the Himalayas and emptying into the ocean by Yangon. The Salween is another major river that cuts through the highlands and empties by Maulmain. A strip of land travels southward from the Salween River down to the Isthmus of Kra with many small islands along the coast. Frequent earthquakes and cyclones are natural hazards, the latter especially in the Irrawaddy Delta. The greatest environmental issues are deforestation and pollution. Myanmar is administratively divided into seven divisions, seven states, and one union territory.

 

Peoples

Burman: 68%

Shan: 9%

Karen: 7%

Rakhine: 4%

Chinese: 3%

Indian: 2%

Mon: 2%

Other: 5%

 

Burmans constitute the majority and populate coastal regions from the Bangladeshi border to the Irrawaddy Delta, the plains along the Irrawaddy River from Yangon northward to the middle of Sagaing Division and southern Kachin State, and coastal areas and islands of Tanintharyi Division. The Shan reside in the highlands located in Shan State. Karen populate areas along the Thai border in Kayah and Kayin States and reside along the border of Thailand all the way south to the Isthmus of Kra. Rakhine live in Rakhine State. The Chinese have a presence in many large cities and have populations concentrated in a couple areas along the Chinese border in Kachin State. Indians primarily live in Yangon and Mandalay. The Mon populate the Mon State. Other notable minority ethnic groups include Chin, Thai, Va, De’ang, Jingpo, Lisu, Naga, Lahu, and Akha.

 

Population: 55,622,506 (July 2018)

Annual Growth Rate: 0.89% (2018)

Fertility Rate: 2.13 children born per woman (2018)

Life Expectancy: 67.0 male, 70.3 female (2018)

 

Languages: Burmese (58%), Karen dialects (6%), Shan (6%), Chinese (2%), other or unspecified (28%). Burmese is the official language. One hundred twenty languages are spoken in Myanmar. Languages with over one million native speakers include Burmese (32 million), Karen dialects (3.2 million), Shan (3.2 million), and Chinese (1.0 million).

Literacy: 75.6% (2016)

 

History

Various ethnic groups have lived in Myanmar for thousands of years. The first known kingdom that encompassed most of present-day Myanmar was the Bagan or Pagan Kingdom between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. The Mongols invaded in the late thirteenth century. Following their departure, the region fragmented into smaller kingdoms. Larger kingdoms began to assimilate the smaller kingdoms in the sixteenth century, notably under the Taungoo Kingdom. The Konbaung Dynasty expanded Myanmar into the Assam region of India in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The British took control of Myanmar during the nineteenth century and did not conquer the entire territory for sixty-two years. Myanmar was administrated by British controlled India until 1937 when it was made into its own colony. Independence from Great Britain took place in 1948 and was quickly followed by single party military rule. Ne Win ruled from 1962 to 1988, when he was overthrown by the military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the multiparty elections in 1990, but the junta refused to relinquish their power and placed the leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for the majority of the time until present. Anti-government demonstrations and civil disorder occurred in the fall of 2007, which were quickly suppressed with the deaths of at least thirteen and the imprisonment of thousands of protesters. Pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the demonstrations. Cyclone Nargis caused widespread devastation in May 2008 and left at least 80,000 dead. A new constitution was adopted in May 2008 by public referendum as a result of the ruling party’s roadmap to democracy initiative.  Elections were held in 2010 for the first time since 1990 and again in 2012, although the elections were criticized for irregularities by international observers. Political reforms in the early 2010s included many developments such as the release of many political prisoners, signing cease-fire agreements with many of the country’s armed groups, reopening of the country to the international community for trade, and reducing restrictions on freedom of the press. In 2015, the NLD elected Htin Kyaw as president followed by Win Wyint in 2018.

 

Attacks on security forces in 2016 and 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in northern Rakhine State culminated in a significant military campaign in the region in which more than 740,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh amid widespread reports of human rights abuses and thousands of deaths. The federal government’s aggressive and violent military operation has been regarded by other nations and international agencies as ethnic cleansing of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. Myanmar has refused to cooperate with outsider observers to investigate these allegations.

 

Culture

Theravada Buddhism continues to heavily influence Burmese culture. At times, there has been intolerance of Christian groups. There are a large number of pagodas and monasteries that hold cultural significance. Soccer is the most popular sport. Cuisine has similarities with Southeast Asia and includes seafood, noodles, rice, and soup. Many live in poverty, while the small elite are historically been alleged to earn much of their money through the narcotics trade. Historically, women received a large amount of respect and rights. Overall, Burmese are friendly and warm people.

 

Economy

GDP per capita: $6,300 (2017) [10.5% of U.S.]

Human Development Index: 0.578 (2017)

Corruption Index: 29 (2018)

The ruling junta, widely criticized for corruption by international agencies, poorly managed the economy and failed to attract greater foreign investment in a nation rich in natural resources until a civilian-led government was established in 2011. Although significant progress has occurred with economic development and measures to reduce corruption, the economy remains underdeveloped despite many opportunities for growth. Rural areas have experienced essentially no improvement in economic conditions despite the restoration of civilian rule. One-quarter of the national population is estimated to live below the poverty line. Agriculture accounts for 24% of the GDP. Primary agriculture products include rice, pulses, and beans. Services claim 40% of the GDP, whereas industry comprises 36% of the GDP. Primary industries include food processing, timber and wood products, mining, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals. Commonly mined minerals and resources include copper, tin, tungsten, iron, oil, gems, oil, and natural gas. Primary exports include natural gas, wood products, and agricultural products. China, Thailand, and Singapore are the primary trade partners.

 

Myanmar previously ranked as one of the worst countries worldwide for corruption. However, perceived corruption levels have markedly improved in the 2010s to levels comparable to Laos, Nepal, and Mexico. Common illegal activity includes drug trafficking, illegal logging, and human trafficking. Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium. Human trafficking occurs with neighboring nations as well as between rural communities and industrial centers for industrial, commercial, and sex trade purposes.

 

Faiths

Buddhist: 87.9%

Christian: 6.2%

Muslim: 3.0%

Animist: 0.8%

Hindu: 0.5%

Other: 0.2%

None: 0.1%

 

Christians

Denominations – Members – Congregations

Evangelicals – 2,517,184          

Catholic – 610,000

Seventh Day Adventists – 33,329 – 342

Jehovah’s Witnesses – 4,499 – 82

Latter-day Saints – 200 – 3

 

Religion

Most Burmese are Theravada Buddhists. Muslims comprise 3-4% of the population.[1] Muslims mainly belong to the Rohingya, Malay, Panthay (Burmese Chinese), and Burmese Indian ethnic groups. Seventy-five percent (75%) of Christians are Baptists, and the remainder mainly consists of Catholics. Many of the Christians are from ethnic minority groups (Chin, Kachin, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, and Kachin) rather than the Burmese majority.

 

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index: 18th (2019)

Religious freedom is mentioned in the constitution, but the government retains the right to limit religious freedom of any groups and often imposes restrictions. There are significant prejudices and abuses of religious freedom. Local Christians oftentimes have not been allowed to proselyte. Preferential treatment of Buddhists and persecution of South Asian Muslims frequently occurs, particularly the Rohingya. The greatest suppression of religious freedom occurs when religious groups coupled political motives in opposition to the federal government, particularly among traditionally Muslim or Christian ethnic groups. Some of the most significant oppression of Christians has occurred in the Wa Self-Administered Division. The greatest religious persecution has been the federal government’s ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State of the Rohingya people, which has been regarded as a genocide. Approximately three-quarters of a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution and violence.[2]

 

Largest Cities

Urban: 30.6% (2018)

Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyitaw, Taunggyi, Bago, Mawlamyine, Myitkyina, Monywa, Lashio, Pathein, Pyin Oo Lwin, Pyay, Kale, Myeik, Myawaddy, Meiktila, Taungoo, Sittwe.

Cities in bold have no congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 

One of the eighteen most populous cities has a Church congregation. Seventeen percent (17%) of the national population lives in the eighteen most populous cities.

 

Church History

Myanmar was assigned to the Singapore Mission in 1969 and then to the Thailand Bangkok Mission in 1973.[3] The first Burmese members joined the Church in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Burmese members traveled to the Thai border and were taught and baptized in Thailand before returning to Myanmar. Myanmar has been assigned to the Thailand Bangkok Mission for many decades. The first young, full-time missionaries were assigned to Myanmar in February 2014. However, these missionaries taught others only by member referral until January 2016 when open proselytism was first permitted. In 2018, Apostle Elder Gary E. Stevenson visited members and missionaries in Yangon.[4] The Church continued to appear to lack official recognition from the government as of mid-2019, but the Church likely has registered with the government in order to assign foreign, full-time missionaries.

 

Membership Growth

Church Membership: ~250 (2018)

In the late 2000s, six refugees from Myanmar were members of the Haven Ward in the South Salt Lake Stake.[5] In 2009, significant Karen-speaking membership growth prompted the creation of the first Karen-speaking branch in Utah. Fifty members belonged to the branch at its creation, and over fifty converts join the Church during the following six months. In addition to Karen, members also spoke Burmese and Karenni. Sacrament attendance for the branch has climbed to the 170s.[6] Approximately 300 Burmese refugees joined the Church in Utah between 2008 and 2012, [7] Missionaries reported sizable numbers of Karen refugees who attended church services in the late 2000s and early 2010s in Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia, and Washington.

 

Several Burmese members have joined the Church in South Asia. Kham Kho Chin Thang went to Malaysia in the early 2000s where he joined the Church and introduced the Church to his fiancé, who also joined. They later returned to Myanmar and remained faithful despite a limited Church presence. The couple attended the temple in Hong Kong in 2006 and continues to reside in Myanmar.[8]

 

Due to the status of the government and lack of official Church presence, the Church does not report official membership totals. However, reports from Church News articles and full-time missionaries suggest that year-end-2018 membership was likely at least 250, or one in 222,490 people.

 

Congregational Growth

Branches: 3 Groups: 1? (2018)

The first missionaries arrived in Myanmar in the 1840s and 1850s and preached in Yangon. The branch was shortly thereafter discontinued and later recreated in the 1880s. However, the small branch was again discontinued prior to 1900.[9]

 

A branch in Yangon has functioned for many years. A second branch was organized in under the Thailand Bangkok Mission named the Thailand Bangkok Mission Burmese Branch for members living in remote locations. Members likely meet in small groups in additional locations, perhaps including Mandalay. One member group meets in northern Myanmar and has infrequent visits and may not be authorized to hold sacrament meetings. A second branch in Yangon called the North Dagon Branch was created in 2018 after a couple years of preparation.

 

Activity and Retention

Church attendance for the Yangon Branch increased from approximately twenty-five in the early 2010s to ninety in early 2018 and approximately 130 in March 2018. More than 175 people attended a special member devotional in March 2018.[10] In May 2018, full-time missionaries reported that as many as forty people who were contemplating membership attended church services. Local members appear to exhibit high self-sufficiency and activity, and member activity and convert retention rates are high. Total active membership is estimated at 150, or 60% of total church membership.

 

Language Materials

Languages with Latter-day Saint Scripture: Burmese, English, Chinese (traditional and simplified characters).

Approval for the translation of all Latter-day Saint scriptures into Burmese was announced in 2017.[11] Translation of the Book of Mormon into Burmese began in late 2015. Approximately half of the Burmese translation of the Book of Mormon was available online on the Church’s website in August 2019.[12] Translations of Church materials are limited to Gospel Fundamentals, The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, a couple basic guidebook for leadership, and a few missionary materials. General Conference talks have been translated into Burmese starting in the 2000s. All Latter-day Saint scriptures and most Church materials are available in traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

 

Meetinghouses

Meetinghouses for the two branches in Yangon appear to meet in rented facilities. Groups, if any operate, likely meet in the privacy of members’ homes.

 

Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church has conducted at least 195 humanitarian and development projects in Myanmar since 1985,[13] with most of these projects occurring after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.[14] In recent years, the Church has conducted Benson Food initiatives, clean water projects, community projects, emergency response, maternal and newborn care, and refugee response. Water projects have occurred for many years in locations such as in Kayin State. Senior missionaries donated 200 school bags for children at a local monastery. LDS Charities have donated funds to bring clean water for local hospitals. The Church has provided employment and opportunities to learn English to Burmese refugees in Utah.[15]

 

 

Opportunities, Challenges, and Prospects

 

Religious Freedom

The Church has made significant progress in establishing the Church in Myanmar despite the restrictive nature of the government, negative prejudices against religious minorities, a lack of Burmese translations of Church materials, and political instability in many areas of the country. The Church carefully honors and obeys the law in Myanmar. Given recent progress with the Church in Yangon, the Church may obtain government recognition within the foreseeable future. It is unclear what barriers may prevent this recognition. The Church likely has obtained registration to operate in the country, although the Church continues to maintain a sensitive presence in Myanmar with no reported meetinghouse locations, membership totals, or congregational totals available to the public.

 

Cultural Issues

Persecution of Christians from Buddhists and the government is a major cultural issue that has persisted over the past sixty years. Most have little familiarity with Christianity. Deeply entrenched negative societal attitudes about religious minorities, such as Christians and Muslims, poses challenges for receptivity among Buddhists. The Church appears to have few, if any, members among many of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority groups. Poverty and moderate literacy rates pose challenges for economic self-sufficiency and testimony development.

 

National Outreach

Yangon is the only city that has full-time missionaries assigned and official branches. Thus, approximately 10% of the national population is reached by the Church. However, Yangon’s 5.5 million inhabitants are minimally reached by current missionary efforts due to the metropolitan area’s large population and only two Latter-day Saint branches that meet within the city. Moreover, the Church does not publish information on its meetinghouse locations online due to its sensitive presence in the country. As a result, some may be unable to locate the Church unless they meet full-time missionaries. Significant increases in church membership and young, single members who serve full-time missions presents good opportunities to open member groups or additional small branches in unreached or lesser-reached areas of Yangon. The organization of a separate mission for Myanmar’s 55.6 million people would help significantly augment mission resources allocated to the country and help better explore and plan outreach expansion efforts to additional cities and administrative divisions.

 

Political instability and distance pose challenges for the Church to reach areas in Myanmar outside of Yangon – many of which present good opportunities for growth. Several sizable minority ethnic groups have been receptive to Protestant missionaries, such as the Chin and Karen, yet the Church has not established a presence in their native homelands. Individuals from these ethnic groups who join the Church in Yangon, remain active to obtain leadership experience, and receive the Melchizedek Priesthood (for men) present the most realistic means for the Church to organize member groups in additional areas of the country. Nevertheless, the large rural population will be a challenge for the Church to reach in the coming decades due to distance, illiteracy, poverty, and accessibility.

 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Member activity rates in Myanmar appears among the highest in Asia. However, it is unclear whether most Latter-day Saints in Myanmar, who have appeared to have been members of the Church for less than a few years, will remain active in the long term. Member activity is limited due to the distribution of some members in areas outside of Yangon. The activity-level and devotion of these isolated members is largely unknown.

 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

The Church does not appear to have faced issues with differing ethnic groups assimilating into the same congregations. Challenges may occur if the Church experiences greater growth with differences between Burmese and other ethnic groups. However, ethnic assimilation issues have appeared unremarkable from returned missionary reports.

 

Language Issues

Church meetings are held in Burmese. Sunday School is conducted in Burmese. Members fluent in both Burmese and English have assisted senior missionaries in traveling around the country and translating Church materials in the past. Delays in the translation of Latter-day Saint scriptures into Burmese has pose challenges for comprehension of Church teachings and testimony development.

 

With the exception of Church materials translated into Chinese, the lack of church resources in any minority language materials also limits outreach and the doctrinal understanding of members from minority groups. The increase of Karen speaking membership in Salt Lake City may necessitate the translation of Church materials in Karen and other minority languages that could be utilized in Myanmar. However, no such plans have been publicly announced.

 

Missionary Service

The Church in Myanmar benefits from high levels of full-time missionary service among fledgling membership. Nine members from the Yangon Branch were serving full-time missions in March 2018, with an additional twenty young adults preparing to complete missionary applications. At the time, there were eight young, full-time missionaries and two senior missionary couples assigned to Myanmar.[16] In September 2018, there were ten young, full-time missionaries assigned to Yangon. Multiple senior missionary couples serve at a time in Myanmar. Senior couples primary work on humanitarian and development projects and also provide some training and mentoring for Burmese members.

 

Leadership

In 2006, a senior missionary served as the president of the Yangon Branch. The second Burmese missionary to serve a mission from Myanmar began his mission in 2007. Local leadership continues to be very limited and limits greater membership growth outside of Yangon. However, there has been some improvements with leadership development as evidenced by the creation of the North Dagon Branch in 2018.

 

Temple

Myanmar pertains to the Hong Kong China Temple District. Some Burmese members have been to the temple to receive their endowments. The trip for members to Hong Kong is expensive and demanding on time and distance. Myanmar will likely be reassigned to the Bangkok Thailand Temple once it is dedicated, which will reduce cost and travel time.

 

Comparative Growth

The Church in Myanmar has experienced some of the most rapid growth in Asia among countries with fewer than 500 members. The Church in Laos has similarly sized membership and also two branches that meet within the most populous city. Government restrictions and a sensitive Church presence has appeared to improve member activity rates, convert retention rates, and member-missionary participation in both countries. The Church in Myanmar has achieved greater progress than in Bangladesh where the Church has experienced stagnant growth for many years. The Church in Nepal experienced similar growth trends with the Church in Myanmar but has struggled in recent years due to the emigration of returned missionaries.

 

Baptist and Catholic denominations gained the majority of their converts and established themselves prior to the rise of the current government. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists have seen continued growth and have numerous congregations throughout the country. These denominations benefit from local members who carry on ecclesiastical duties with little to no assistance from outside the country. Christian groups report increases in membership, but a lack of religious freedom limits growth. Nonetheless, the continued expansion of such groups demonstrates the potential for considerable Latter-day Saint growth through member-missionary efforts even under challenging conditions.

 

Future Prospects

Prospects appear favorable for continued Church growth in Yangon due to recent successes with steady numbers of new converts joining the Church, increasing numbers of active members, the creation of a second branch in Yangon, high member activity and convert retention rates, and the forthcoming translation of more Church materials into Burmese. Additional member groups or branches appear likely to be organized to improve accessibility to congregations and spark greater growth. Local members who complete full-time missionary service and return and remain in Myanmar thereafter present the greatest opportunities for expansion and growth. Branches in Yangon may be organized into a district once there is sufficient local leadership to staff both branch and district callings. The Church may organize member groups in additional cities, primarily in areas under control of the federal government. However, expansion of the Church into additional cities appears more likely once a separate mission is organized in Myanmar. Nevertheless, the Church will need to secure full government recognition and become more self-sufficient in its local leadership to better prepare for future opportunities for growth. Translation of Church materials into additional languages, such as Karen, appears needed. However, given trends in language translation efforts among minority languages, such prospects appear dim for the foreseeable future notwithstanding good opportunities for these materials to be utilized in missionary efforts.



[1] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Burma.” U.S. Department of State. 21 June 2019. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/burma/

[2] “2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Burma.” U.S. Department of State. 21 June 2019. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-report-on-international-religious-freedom/burma/

[3] “The Church in Thailand,” Friend, Apr 1975, 42.

[4] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623

[5] Askar, Jamshid. “Part of the family: Mentors kit close ties with their changes,” LDS Church News, 13 May 2009. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57324/Part-of-the-family-Mentors-knit-close-ties-with-their-charges.html

[6] Stettler, Jeremiah. “Finding refuge—and resources—in the LDS Church,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2010.1.1 http://www.sltrib.com/lds/ci_14095518

[7] “Young Asian refugees bond with Scouting Troop 1262.” LDS Church News. 16 June 2012. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2012-06-16/young-asian-refugees-bond-with-scouting-troop-1262-51233

[8] “The search for a better life,” News from the Church, 2 July 2008. http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?locale=0&sourceId=64df050a380ea110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=7cecc8fe9c88d010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

[9] “India,” Deseret News 2010 Church Almanac, p. 502–4

[10] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623

[11] “Approved Scripture Translation Projects.” Letter from the First Presidency dated 9 October 2017. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/bc/content/ldsorg/church/news/2017/11/2-15159_000_letter.pdf?lang=eng

[12] Burmese Translation of the Book of Mormon. www.churchofjesuschrist.org, Accessed 27 August 2019. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/1-ne/1?lang=mya

[13] “Where We Work.” Latter-day Saint Charities. Accessed 27 August 2019. https://www.latterdaysaintcharities.org/where-we-work

[14] Weaver, Sarah Jane. “Unprecedented year,” LDS Church News, 14 January 2006. http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/48384/Unprecedented-year.html

[15] McDonald, Ryan. “‘Opportunity is opening for me’ — Refugees learn English, job skills at Deseret Industries.” LDS Church News. 24 August 2013. https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2013-08-24/opportunity-is-opening-for-me-refugees-learn-english-job-skills-at-deseret-industries-44443

[16] Prescott, Marianne Holman. “10 countries in 10 days — Church leaders witness growth during tour through Asia.” 1 April 2018. LDS Church News. https://www.thechurchnews.com/lds-church-news/2018-04-01/10-countries-in-10-days-church-leaders-witness-growth-during-tour-through-asia-12623