Myanmar’s largest non-state army is detaining several Christian clergy members for questioning and destroying churches in its self-proclaimed autonomous areas bordering China and Thailand in Shan state, according to a statement issued by the group.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 30,000-strong ethnic armed group comprising the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the de facto ruling party of the self-declared Wa state not officially recognized by the Myanmar government, has conducted these activities since Sept. 13, sources said.
“We have heard that the UWSA has called and questioned clergy members about whether they are doing development work or persuading people to convert to Christianity,” said Rev. Soe Naing from the Catholic Clergies Group.
“If an individual or an organization builds a church in any area, they investigate to see whether it is being built because it is in a Christian community or whether it is being built to proselytize to get people to convert to Christianity,” he said.
“But they haven’t arrested anybody,” he added.
The UWSA issued a six-point statement dated Sept. 6, which has been circulating on Facebook, sources said.
The statement says that all churches, missionaries, school teachers, and clergy members must be investigated and that a list of all churches in Wa-controlled areas must be drawn up.
Churches built after 1989 — except for one built in 1992 with the government’s permission — must be destroyed, and new ones cannot be built in a measure to prevent people from converting to Christianity.
The statement also prohibits ethnic Wa organizations or committees from getting involved in support groups at churches and bans the teaching of religious lessons or beliefs at government schools.
It also requires all religious leaders to be local residents of the Wa region and to conduct their work activities only with the permission of the Wa government under the rules and regulations of UWSA headquarters.
“We haven’t received any official letter [from the UWSA] about it,” said Saw Shwe Lin, general secretary of the Myanmar Council of Churches.
“What I think is that this is a pre-emptive policy to ensure that people do not convert to Christianity when clergy members do missionary work,” he said.
Nyi Ran, a UWSA communications official at the army’s office in the town of Lashio in Shan state, told RFA that Wa military leaders believe there are religious extremists in Wa territory, including missionaries who have not obtained official permission and clergy members who are operating outside the law.
UWSA soldiers have apprehended “suspects” and are questioning them, he added.
The UWSA is believed to be one of the largest drug trafficking groups in Southeast Asia. The ethnic army maintains that it is not involved in the drug trade, however.
It also is one of several ethnic armed organizations that have refused to sign the Myanmar government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), insisting that the pact should include all ethnic armies.
The China-backed UWSA leads a political coalition called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) with six other non-signatory groups — the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLF), Arakan Army (AA), and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
The FPNCC was created in April 2017 to hold political negotiations and discuss peace-building.
Myanmar’s first fully civilian government in decades is trying to reach an accord with the UWSA and other ethnic armies to end seven decades of civil war and forge peace and stability in its lawless border regions.
Reported by Kyaw Zaw Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.