From Burma to Korea: Outreach among the Myanmar Diaspora Community

In 1975, diplomatic relations between the Republic of Korea and the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma) was established. This relationship paved the way for bilateral trade and cultural ties. South Korea is now home to an estimated two thousand nationals from Myanmar. These people include workers, diplomats, religious leaders, and refugees.

The workers (euphemistically called “migrant workers”) make up the largest Myanmar diaspora population in Korea. Since the early 1990s, migrant workers have served mostly in the so-called 3-D jobs—Dirty, Difficult, and Dangerous—and send hard-earned money to support families and relatives back home. In the late 1980s, a small number of Myanmar students registered in a handful of universities and theological institutions in Korea. In the future, more students will be registering in Korean universities as the Korean Embassy in Yangon begins offering scholarships to qualified students.

Along with the influx of migrant workers are a few asylum seekers who show up as political, religious, or economic refugees. Political refugees flee Myanmar because of their past political activism. Religious refugees claim to have suffered from repressions and oppressions so they find refuge in Korea. Economic refugees, however, belong neither to political or religious classifications, having difficulty supporting their claims with facts. It seems, though, that most refugees come from some of the major ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The “religious workers,” although small in number, represent the Protestant/evangelical communities in Myanmar. As of February 2009, seven regular Myanmar congregations exist in Korea, mostly led by Myanmar church leaders who currently study at theological schools in Korea.

Onnuri Myanmar Community
Ministry among Myanmar nationals in Korea commenced with a few leaders reaching out to their countrymen while studying at local schools. A good case in point is Onnuri Myanmar Community (OMC), established under the visionary leadership of Rev. Dr. Yong Jo Ha, senior pastor of Onnuri Community Church. Dr. Ha envisioned the training of “national missionaries” in Korea by supporting the education of a select but qualified group of leaders from countries where Korean missionaries have difficulty working.

In December 1994, OMC was born under the leadership of a Myanmar pastor, who at that time was completing his doctoral program at a local seminary. In the early days, OMC had actively reached out to the Burmese Buddhists. Later, the population shifted to ethnic lines as new leaders took charge. The Chins now represent the majority, with a trickle from other ethnic groups. Most members at OMC are in their forties or older. Asked by a leader why many came to Korea, they gave a candid reply: “We came here to work and earn money in order that we can start small business when we go back to Myanmar.”

Partnership plays a key role in the expansion of diaspora ministries at OMC. The Korean host contributes substantially to the outreach (e.g., salary, food, clothing, medicine). OMC does its part as it collects funds from members to support two “national missionaries” in Myanmar. New members are taught that OMC “exists to glorify God by being a community of worship and mission-directed community.” Strategies they use to fulfill this objective include holding prayer meetings, conducting Bible studies, observing regular worship services, and organizing care group meetings on Sundays.

The most effective strategy among Myanmar diaspora is the “shelter.” Operating the shelter requires quite a bit of planning, personnel, and resources; however, it helps those who come for rest (including the sick and injured) and provides temporary housing whenever they lose jobs.

Burmese Buddhists also come to the shelter for fellowship. Twice a year, OMC holds two major evangelistic campaigns during Chuseok (the Korean traditional harvest time) Lunar New Year. Chuseok events seek out other migrant workers (i.e., nationals from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Russia, Mongolia, or Pakistan). Lunar New Year events aim to reach out to the Myanmar Buddhists.

As people from Myanmar love music, singing (a leader calls it “sing-song”) is a major feature in all organized events. Members of the Myanmar community in Korea face many challenges such as homesickness, language barriers (Korea is a mono-linguistic and mono-cultural society), culture shock, and remittance of their earnings. The existence, however, of concrete and intentional ministries that address their spiritual and material needs makes a big difference in their stay in Korea.

Dr. Tereso Casino is professor of theology and intercultural studies/missiology at Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology (Seoul, South Korea). He was former dean of Asia Baptist Theological Seminary and founding director of the Asia Pacific Institute of Missions at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. Since 1992, Casino has been engaged in international missions and theological education and has served in pastorates in the Philippines. He taught in several countries in Asia, the Netherlands, and Bulgaria. He pioneered two diaspora congregations in Seoul (1994, 1999) and currently ministers at the International Baptist Church in Seoul and the English congregation of Saejungang Presbyterian Church in Anyang. He is founding editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Intercultural Studies (APJICS).