Members of the United Wa State Army stand guard north of Kyaing Tong town, in eastern Shan state, in 2006.

Seventeen of the 41 Bible students forcibly recruited by an ethnic minority army in Myanmar’s northern Shan state in September have escaped, according to Catholic news site UCAN.

The students arrived in groups of two or three at the Lahu Baptist Church in Kyaing Tong town, eastern Shan state, in the last two weeks, having fled from a United Wa State Army (UWSA) base in the Wa hills near the border with China, said Rev. Lazarus, a spokesman for the region’s ethnic Lahu Baptist community.

“Some of them did not have food for several days. Some are suffering health problems and some now have psychological problems,” he told UCAN.

The 41 male and female students were taking Bible classes in various churches in the state’s northern Wa region, which borders China, when they were forcibly recruited.

Schools closed

Wa is a self-declared autonomous state in Shan, bordering China and Thailand, which is not recognised by the Myanmar government. The UWSA is Myanmar’s largest non-state army and has been reported to be backed by China.

The armed group issued a statement on Facebook on 6 September, in Chinese, declaring that all existing churches, missionaries, school teachers and clergymen were to be investigated, with foreign church workers banned and those found to support missionary activities punished.

Since then, the UWSA has destroyed churches, ordered Christians to no longer pray in churches and banned the construction of new churches and religious teaching in schools in the Wa region.

It also closed schools in the area that had been established by the US-based Chinese pastor John Cao, 60, reported World Magazine.

In March this year Cao was sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally crossing the border into Myanmar.

The pastor, a key figure in China’s “house church” movement, provided humanitarian aid to people in the Wa Hills area and, according to World Magazine, is believed to have been tricked by China’s state security.

‘We will not be able to continue’

Meanwhile the president of the US-based international advocacy group Kachin Alliance has said that people in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, which also shares a border with China, are facing “an existential threat”, reports The Christian Post.

“We as a people believe that we will not be able to continue within one to two generations,” , Gum San Nsang told a meeting in Washington, D.C. on Saturday (10 November).

Since the army seized control of the country in 1962, the ongoing war with the Kachin Independence Army has resulted in thousands of people killed and least 120,000 displaced in the Christian-majority state.

“That is an imminent threat to our identity. Because I can’t practise my own language, my children will not have the capacity or ability to learn their own language. We are not able to construct a sanctuary or a church,” Nsang said.

In August World Watch Monitor reported how tens of thousands of forcibly displaced people had been denied access to aid for over seven years. The humanitarian group Fortify Rights claimed at the time the actions of the government and Burmese army against the Kachin “might amount to a war crime”.