An interpreter sought political asylum after smuggling Bibles into Burma

By KATE MASTERS | The Frederick News-Post, Md. | Published: December 2, 2017

FREDERICK, Md. (Tribune News Service) — For years, after a military coup toppled the newly elected democratic government in Burma, practicing Christians were often forced to choose between the ruling socialist party and God. Andrew Luai chose God.

Now 78 and a resident of Frederick, Luai never planned to be an evangelist. He grew up in a farming family in the northwestern part of Burma – now known as Myanmar – a section of the country inhabited almost solely by members of the Chin people.

The Chins, an ethnic minority in Myanmar, are today more than 85 percent Christian, but coexist within the borders of a predominantly Buddhist country. Considered outsiders even before the military took power, the Chins became targets after the 1962 coup, when the ruling party worked to excise Christianity from the country.

For a long period, Luai was largely untouched by the upheaval in his native land. As a young man, he considered himself Christian in name only and didn't concern himself with religious issues. He left the country for two years after graduating from college to study aviation in Perth, Scotland, returning home two years after the military took over. Businesses had been nationalized and poverty was widespread in Burma, but Luai was immediately appointed to a coveted job as a commercial airline pilot. The pay was good, and he could afford a comfortable life in Burma's capital city, then known as Rangoon.

As a Chin, though, Luai was still subject to more scrutiny than the majority Burmese people. His father and uncles were political figures in the tribal area, he said, and the military government had a deep mistrust of ethnic minorities.

"They'll knock on your door at any time and they will search you," Luai said. "Especially we hill tribes. We might have friends and family from our hometown who would come to the city, put up with us. And those visitors are suspects, whoever they are."

Non-military workers, including pilots, were also targets of suspicion, Luai said. This combination – his job and his ancestry – eventually proved too big a risk. About two years after he started working as a pilot, members of the military intelligence service searched his briefcase before a flight. Inside, they found 10,000 Indian rupees – a commonly used currency in Chin state, which borders India – that he planned to take back to his family. For possessing foreign currency, Luai was arrested and jailed for five years without trial.

"Jail life was tough," he said. "And there were two classes in jail – criminals and the politicians from the previous government. I was put among the politicians. It's not too bad for us because they give us proper food, a proper living style. But the food is bad. They don't give us a mattress or anything. They just give us a sheet or blanket and a mosquito net."

Toward the end of his stint in prison, Luai said he was also interrogated several times by military police, who wanted to know his contacts and whether he had brought in any American dollars. The questioning never turned physical, which was unusual among prisoners. Luai attributed this largely to his former job as a pilot and his own lack of political violence.

After half a decade, Luai was finally sped through a trial, convicted, and sentenced to time served. As a condition of his release, he had to promise to stay in Rangoon for five more years and sign in at the Court of Justice every Wednesday.

The experience, though, had shaken him deeply. While on parole, he earned a living as a truck driver for his uncle while attending one of the few Christian churches in the capital. There, he began to listen closely to foreign evangelists who flocked to Burma in the years after the coup, hoping to inspire Christians there and make converts of the native population.

"That's why I got born again," Luai said. "I was almost 30. They came to the capital, and they came to our church. And I heard that Jesus was the savior of the world – that he died on the cross for our sins and it is good for eternity."

Some of the groups aspired to more than just preaching. Soon after the conditions of Luai's release finally ended, he was approached by a group of missionaries known as God's Smugglers, run by a Dutchman called Brother Andrew. They needed someone willing to smuggle Bibles into Burma, where the printing and importing of Christian texts had been banned.

Luai told them he would pray on the decision. The next day, he met with the group again at a Methodist church and agreed to the mission. A short time later, he was deep in the jungle that bordered Thailand, waiting for a delivery of 10,000 copies of the New Testament from Bangkok.

"We asked, 'Who are we going to obey – the government or God?'" Luai said. "Well, let's obey God. Bring those Bibles into Burma."

A journey arranged by God

The books arrived in the beds of 15 Toyota pickup trucks, but Luai transferred them to bull-drawn carts before they crossed the border into Burma. For days, he rode alongside the Bibles as they traveled through the jungle, finally stopping in an area of Burma occupied by the Karen tribe.

Tribal forces were clashing with government troops on the night he arrived, so Luai hid with a host family until morning. The next day, he decided to transport only 1,000 of the 10,000 Bibles – a trial run before the main event.

"I don't want to put the eggs in one basket," he explained. "I don't want to take all 10,000 to Rangoon and have them be confiscated on the way."

With help from the tribespeople, he transferred the books to canoes and rode with them to a small island on the Salween River. On the day he arrived, Luai also celebrated the first of what he considered many interventions by God.

With few other options, he decided to contact a boat operator and openly explain that he was trying to smuggle forbidden texts to the capital city. Surprisingly, he said, the man agreed to help him for a small sum of money. With help from the boat operator's assistant, the three men transferred the books to a small boat and covered them with firewood. From there, they started off for Moulmein, now known as Mawlamyine, a major city about 185 miles from Rangoon.

Along the way, he encountered his second spiritual intervention. To avoid detection, the three men traveled along the river at night during monsoon season, braving pouring rain and the complete darkness of the countryside. One wet evening, they heard loud voices upstream – a group of raft men sailing timbers down the Salween. The voices grew louder and louder, but it was impossible to make out the men and the rafts in the deluge of water and darkness surrounding them. The boat operator, Luai said, was terrified they were going to crash.

"But at the last moment, there was lightning from the sky," he said. "We saw the raft right there, and then the boatman veered to the right. We almost capsized; we were so close. In the Bible, it says in Isaiah [43:2], 'If you are in the water, the water will not run over.' So, that verse came to me in my mind. It was a light sent from above."

Luai felt equally blessed when the men finally reached Moulmein. One of the first things he spotted in the city was a Burmese army truck that belonged to a unit run by his schoolmate – a schoolmate who was also a Christian.

When Luai spoke to the major, he agreed to assign a truck to carry the Bibles on the one-day journey to Rangoon. Once Luai finally reached the capital – after a full month of travel – he took a batch of the books to the church where he had attended services.

"And the pastor told me, 'Andrew, do not bring these books to my church again,'" Luai said. "Because he was afraid. So I brought them to another church where people were happy. See how things are? How dangerous those books are? Even a pastor didn't accept them."

Reaching out to America

In the months that followed, Luai said, he continued his work, smuggling Bibles from India into China and other cities in Burma. He gained a reputation as a reliable trafficker, at least to the groups that depended on his efforts.

"He was one of my main mules carrying Bibles into Burma and China," said Armando Castelazo, 79, a real estate agent in Riverside, California. At the time Luai was working, Castelazo was part of a group called Tribes and Nations Outreach, whose members also flew to Burma as tourists and smuggled Bibles in their suitcases.

For both men, the gambit went on for several years, but Luai's career as a smuggler came to a more abrupt end. In the early 1980s, he and two friends were caught by Burmese authorities as they tried to funnel 30,000 Bibles into China. Luai was arrested again and held for five days in jail, where Burmese authorities interrogated him for six hours a day. While police never physically hurt him, the threat was certainly there.

"It was a warning," Luai said. "They told me, 'Next time, if you do this, we will interrogate you in that room.' That room is the torture room."

After his release, Luai wrote to friends in California, who agreed to find a way to get him out of the country. It took years, Castelezo said, but Luai was finally granted a visa and flew to Bangkok before coming to live with him in California.

Luai stayed on the West Coast for seven years, earning enough money to fly his wife and four children from Burma to America. The family moved in 1994 to Frederick, where Luai now works as a Burmese interpreter for Frederick Memorial Hospital and local medical offices.

"If I said I never got homesick, I would be lying – even now, I can see my birthplace, where I grew up, in my mind," Luai said. "The people I grew up with are no more, but it's the place where I grew up that I miss."

He never falters in certainty when it comes to his past. Despite the imprisonment, and despite the threats that forced him from his home country, bringing Bibles into Burma was Luai's given journey, he believes. He was never good at preaching, or witnessing, like so many of his Christian friends. Smuggling, he said, was his only form of service.

"Because I was born again, I love God," Luai said. "I love Christ. I love to do at least something for him. I don't work with my mouth. I can't serve him with my words, so I serve him with my body."


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