Wa State, Myanmar — The United Wa State Army (UWSA), a Chinese-backed militia group, continues its suppression of Christian missionaries in Myanmar’s Wa State following the arrest of a North Carolina pastor who served in the area.
On Sept. 25, Lahu Baptist Church announced at least three churches have been destroyed, 52 churches in Mong Pauk Town have been shut down, Lahu Seminary was closed, and religious symbols, including crosses, were removed.
The UWSA also detained 92 Christians, who were not released until they signed a pledge stating they “have no right to attend churches and will pray at home only.” Many were released at 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 10. The militia also drove out five Catholic nuns and six Christian teachers in the month of September, and at least 16 volunteer Christian instructors from Zhejiang, China, were deported back to their homeland.
42 seminarian students have been taken by the UWSA, and Christians are concerned they have been coerced into joining the military. Some Christian schools have also been shut down, and students have been forced to join the UWSA.
The group alleges the anti-Christian actions stem from domestic disputes, the lack of approved church buildings, and a disproportionate church-population ratio. However, Christian missionaries and volunteers build a rapport with local residents and have made remarkable contributions to the livelihood, medical service, and education of people residing the rural areas. In fact, M. Hkawng, chairman of the Kachin National Congress, said the missionaries have improved the lives of the local people and even inspired them to study abroad.
Nevertheless, the UWSA has been interrogating arrested church leaders about the illegal construction of church buildings and people from other countries serving in Christian congregations. Lasarui, a leader of the Lahu Baptist Church, said churches are “unable to worship.” Then, he added, “The UWSA released more than 100 [Christian] leaders who are both Wa and other ethnicities last time, and Lahu [church] leaders were freed this week. We are endeavoring to get the UWSA to release the students. We penned a letter to the UWSA again. We will negotiate with them in person if necessary. However, given the current situation, we still cannot….”
Christians in Wangyang Town have also been forbidden from worshipping at home, forcing some of them to stay in other locations.
The UWSA was founded in 1989 after a mutiny caused communist leaders to flee to China. It took control of Wa State and has a connection to Beijing. Experts believe the UWSA’s oppression of Christianity comes as a result of the Chinese Communist Party’s manipulation. Their means of persecuting Christians, such as destroying church buildings and forbidding foreigners from serving in church leader positions, matches those practiced by the Chinese government, and both fear religion may be a threat to their rule.
In addition, John Cao, a Chinese pastor who led a church in North Carolina and one of the missionaries who built schools in the region, was arrested by Chinese officials in March 2017 when he rafted his way across the border from Myanmar to China. Officials charged him with “organizing illegal border crossings” even though he had made the same journey multiple times without consequence. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.