The United Wa State Army has ordered that churches built in Wa territory in Shan state after 1989 have to be destroyed. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
The United Wa State Army has ordered that churches built in Wa territory since 1989 have to be destroyed. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

An ethnic armed group in Myanmar’s Shan state is destroying churches and holding clergymen for questioning, reports Radio Free Asia.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP), reportedly issued a statement on Facebook on 6 September, declaring that all churches built after 1989 (when the Communist Party collapsed) must be destroyed, with the exception of one built with the government’s permission, and that no new churches will be allowed. All existing churches, missionaries, school teachers, and clergy members are to be investigated, with foreign church workers banned and those found to support missionary activities set to be punished.

Wa is a self-declared autonomous state in Shan, bordering China and Thailand, which is not recognised by the Myanmar government. Its army is the country’s largest non-state army.

Myanmar. (Source: CartoGIS Services, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University)
Myanmar. (Source: CartoGIS Services, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University)

“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,” Rev. Soe Naing, from the Catholic Clergies Group, told RFA. “If an individual or an organisation 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 proselytise to get people to convert to Christianity.”

According to Nyi Ran, a UWSA communications official at the army’s office in the town of Lashio, “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.”

China’s suspicion

Myanmar is a majority-Buddhist country, where Christians – 8 per cent of the population – not only face pressure from the army and rebel groups but can also face discrimination from relatives and their communities because, as one pastor told World Watch Monitor recently, it is often perceived that “being Burmese means being Buddhist”.

The UWSA is one of the ethnic armed groups which refused to sign a ceasefire agreement with the government. UWSA also leads a group of other non-signatories called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, which includes the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

UWSA is supported by China and, according to AsiaTimes, its Facebook statement, which was posted in Chinese, raises questions about whether China is trying to “further consolidate its near-monopoly on Myanmar’s peace process by squeezing out rival Western non-governmental organisations [NGOs] and blocking potential Western agents from accessing the area while masquerading as Christian missionaries”.

In May, a US-based pastor who is a key figure in China’s “house church” movement, John Cao, was sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally crossing the border into Myanmar, where he provided humanitarian aid to people in the Wa Hills area.

“There is no reason to believe that Cao was more than a philanthropic church worker, but the Chinese as well as the UWSP may see the emergence of faith-based organisations and movements as a challenge to their authority,” said AsiaTimes.

China also closely follows developments at its southern border with Myanmar’s majority-Christian Kachin state, where the KIA has been fighting Myanmar’s government army for decades. In particular the “strong connections between … Kachins and Baptist churches in the US are … known to trouble China”, according to AsiaNews.

‘Clear patterns of violations’

China’s government has also put pressure on Myanmar’s authorities and rebel army leaders not to allow humanitarian aid to reach tens of thousands of forcibly displaced people in northern Kachin, according to a report by the Southeast-Asia based humanitarian group Fortify Rights.

China assumes international humanitarian groups operate as “proxies for Western governments”, especially the US, spokesman David Baulk told the Catholic news service International La Croix.

According to Swedish journalist and Myanmar specialist Bertil Lintner, KIA-controlled areas are now almost out of reach of the UN. “The Chinese obviously want to control what – and who – is going in and out of those areas,” Lintner said.

Meanwhile the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released its full report on Tuesday (18 September), showing “clear patterns of violations by the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, across the country”, Catholic news agency Zenit reported.

“During their operations, the Tatmadaw has systematically targeted civilians, including women and children, committed sexual violence, voiced and promoted exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers,” said Marzuki Darusman, chair of the Fact-Finding Mission. “The full findings we are releasing today show why, in our report to the Human Rights Council, we insist that the perpetrators of the gross human rights violations and international crimes, committed in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states must not go unpunished.”