It was a moment that brought the room to silence, and several parliamentarians to tears. A man from Myanmar, part of our delegation of Baptist representatives, had just shared about how his rural village had been bombed by the military Junta. Violent conflict has gripped his home country, and he spoke the names of the people in his community who had perished. They did not deserve this, he told those present, and we need to help more.
This was one of many significant moments throughout Converge, an annual gathering of Baptist leaders and representatives from across Australia to lobby our elected representatives on issues close to the heart of Australian Baptists.
In October this year, Baptist World Aid was part of the first post-COVID Converge delegation. This was my third time attending this gathering, but my first as part of the Baptist World Aid team. Coordinated by Australian Baptist Ministries, it’s always an event that highlights the ‘big tent’ that is the Baptist movement in Australia, bringing together forty delegates representing congregations, state offices, and Baptist organisations from across the breadth of our country.
This year’s gathering was noteworthy, with over a third of our delegates also representing various ethnic communities from Myanmar. This was, of course, done with intention and by design.
What’s Happening in Myanmar?
At a time in history when, tragically, multiple crises involving armed conflicts in various places around the world are competing for international attention, a protracted humanitarian disaster continues in Myanmar.
Almost three years have passed since the nation’s military staged a coup and overthrew the democratically elected government of Myanmar. Shortly afterwards, a state of emergency was declared by the military, making way for the violent oppression of their own citizens. This campaign of terror—along with the havoc caused by Cyclone Mocha in May this year—has created a situation where more than a third of the population is in desperate need of international aid. Currently 1.9 million people are without homes, living in makeshift shelters and displacement camps scattered throughout the country. You can read a quick guide to what’s happening here.
Lobbying for Action
There are more than 10,000 people from Myanmar who now live here in Australia and belong to a Baptist church. They are easily the biggest ethnic minority of the Australian Baptist family – and as such, the focus of this year’s Converge gathering was to bring the plight of the people of Myanmar back onto the radar of our elected representatives.
To bring about real change in this country, we encouraged many Senators and Members of Parliament to join our campaign, calling for:
- Targeted sanctions aimed at the military junta in Myanmar;
- official recognition of the democratically elected government-in-exile; and
- diplomatic pressure to bring about change for those caught in conflict.
The Converge delegation had plenty of encouraging discussions throughout the week, with parliamentarians such as Brian Mitchell MP, Lisa Chesters MP, Milton Dickson MP, David Smith MP, Tony Zappia MP and Mary Doyle MP.
While I now have a few Converge experiences to reflect on, this year’s gathering was special. The opportunity to advocate on a truly bi-partisan issue was certainly a first, but there was also so much to learn from the courage and vulnerability with which our brothers and sisters from Myanmar shared their harrowing stories. Several parliamentarians (and other delegates!) were brought to tears. I personally heard from a pastor whose church had taken responsibility for providing for the needs of loved ones in their congregation, and the many obstacles he faced getting money to these church members, as they sought refuge in India.
These deeply personal stories of difficulty and suffering are hard to comprehend from Australia, but I was encouraged by the generosity of spirit with which they were received. And while this particular gathering was over in three days, I was inspired to continue my advocacy for the people of Myanmar—for as long as it takes to see them experience freedom to flourish in their lives.