Future plans: faithful encounters: transnational religion, missionization and the refugee crisis in mainland Southeast Asia (completed)

Alexander Horstmann

For this research project, I propose to scrutinize the strategies used in establishing Christian missionary networks in response to migrations and flight following war and conflict in Burma (Myanmar). My interest in the project lies in the missionaries themselves, in the geographies of conversion, their support structures, modes of mediation, humanitarian assistance, and in the new cultures of missionary networks in the refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border. Christianity and Islam are both world religions that prescribe the spread of their beliefs as both religious obligation and policy. These religions have produced the largest missionary movements in the world, covering possibly every country in the world. The missionary movements have entered every space, megacities and the countryside where they have planted their churches and mosques. Doing so, they also come into a competition with each other or with other religions that also have their missionary organizations, such as Pentecostal Christian (Baptist and Presbyterian), charismatic and state-sponsored Buddhist movements, new combinations of Sufi-Salafi conservative Islamic movements (such as the Tablighi Jama’at). These new-born Christians have to cope with the Thai and Burmese states in which they live and which nervously observe the expansion of the revitalized religions. Impeded by states that use their monopoly on violence to suppress missionary activities, and operating in a pre-dominantly Theravadin-Buddhist environment, missionary agencies nevertheless-driven by their faith- try everything to organize the people into their orbits and to establish a cultural presence. The borderlands of modern mainland Southeast Asia and especially refugee camps are important sites of proselytizing in which thousands of people convert to Christianity. In particular, protracted and total warfare in the borderlands of Burma produces waves of migrants and refugees who are without citizenship rights. The literature on human rights describes the refugee camp as a panoptical space in which the refugee is stripped of basic human rights and is vulnerable to exploitation. To the Christian missionary, the refugee camp is part of God’s great plan to save refugees on Noah’s ark and to re-organize them in the refugee camps along the border and spread the good news among Karen in Burma, in Thailand, in India, in China, and- through resettlement in third countries- in North America, Canada and Europe.

My research project takes a paradox of our times as a starting point: While the state puts severe constraints on the movement of people and while borderlands can be seen as expressions of structural violence, missionary networks aim to liberate people by granting them access to real and imagined transnational communities and transnational networks. They also offer people ultimate salvation from their worldly travails. Missionary networks thrive in those spaces in which marginalization and deprivation are the highest. Conversion takes place at every social status level of society, expanding the “prosperity gospel” among the urban bourgeoisie and the “rice gospel” among migrants and refugees. While the “prosperity gospel” is woven into modern worlds of aspiration and consumption, the “rice gospel” provides shelter and resources to minorities, migrants and refugees who suffer from persecution and discrimination. The appeal of new missionary networks stems not only from their promises of salvation from sin and entry into paradise, but the provision of this-worldly social services and economic security. These people, their families and children are socialized in imagined communities in which they learn to live Christian or Muslim lives. While Christian missionaries have established a presence in village churches, in the border towns, and in the refugee camps, have established schools, hospitals and orphanages for the poor and the needy, Muslims do not seem to have a Master-plan to assist Muslim arrivals or converts.

In the Mela refugee camp (in Tak province, Thailand), by far the largest refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border, for example, Protestant missionary networks are firmly established and ready to help. Numerous Christian organizations organized in the border consortium provide relief and humanitarian assistance. A Baptist Karen Reverend and professor of theology has established a famous Bible school that attracts not only refugees, but also students from far away. Christian organizations from Northern America and South Korea support the ministry in the Mela refugee camp and Christian missionaries from Northern America, Nagaland, Northeast India and China volunteer for positions in teaching and relief welfare. I will use a qualitative, ethnographic approach to study the rival geographies of Christian and Islamic missionary networks/ cartographies and their religious organization and welfare for migrants and refugees in the borderlands of Burma.

Alexander Horstmann, "Confinement and Mobility: Transnational Ties and Religious Networking among Baptist Karen at the Thailand-Burma Border", in MMG Working Paper, (2010), Vol. 10-16.
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