Ethnic Wa, Palaung and Shan people watch a 2013 religious ceremony by the ethnic United Wa State Army, who have been fighting Myanmar’s government troops in northern Shan state for decades.

Four 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.

Last month an initial group of 17 students escaped from a United Wa State Army (UWSA) base in the Wa hills near the border with China.

The remaining 20 students are all women, and Rev. Lazarus, a spokesman for the region’s ethnic Lahu Baptist community, told UCAN he feared for their safety.

The four students who escaped, all male and in their late teens, arrived several days ago and said the UWSA forced them to attend military training, including the use of firearms, according to Rev. Lazarus.

On their flight through the jungle they had not been able to eat and “when they arrived initially, they had some psychological problems”, he said.

“But they are coping with it as they now feel safe taking refuge in the church,” he added.

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

Wa is a self-declared autonomous state, bordering China and Thailand, which is not recognised by the Myanmar government. The UWSA is Myanmar’s largest non-state army and is reportedly backed by China.

The UWSA issued a statement on Facebook on 6 September, in Chinese, declaring that all existing churches, missionaries, schoolteachers 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.