A United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldier stands guard during a ceremony on April 17 in Pangkham to commemorate 30 years of a ceasefire signed with the Myanmar military in Wa State. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Dozens of Christian churches that were forcibly closed by Chinese-backed militia in the Wa region of Myanmar’s Shan State have been reopened.
Rev. Lazarus, general secretary of the Lahu Baptist Convention in Kyaing Tong, said around 20 Lahu Baptist churches in towns remain sealed off despite dozens of village churches being reopened.
He said they were not informed by officials from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) about the church reopenings and he was told by local church leaders.
“We hope to reopen all churches and to have freedom of religion and worship,” Rev. Lazarus told ucanews.
A Bible school run by the Lahu Baptist Church is yet to be reopened.
Rev. Lazarus said that 16 young women who were forcibly recruited by the UWSA fled to Kyaing Tong several months ago.
A similar number of male Bible students also managed to escape from the militiamen last October.
Lahu Baptist leaders and political parties as well as cultural and women’s associations had previously sent letters to the UWSA demanding that churches be reopened.
According to Baptist officials, 52 churches were shut down, three destroyed and 92 Lahu Baptist leaders detained in the Wa army crackdown on Christians that began in September last year.
Catholic and Kachin Baptist churches are yet to be reopened, according to sources.
In September 2018, three Salesian priests, 11 nuns from the Missionary Society of St. Paul and Sisters of Charity congregations and nine lay teachers were expelled by the UWSA, an offshoot of the Communist Party of Burma (Myanmar).
The UWSA’s campaign has seen churches torn down, pastors detained and religious schools closed. China is believed to be pressuring the militia to detain more pastors.
The UWSA has declared all churches built after 1992 illegal and has vowed to destroy them. Only those built between from 1989 to 1992 are deemed legal and valid.
The Wa army has banned construction of new churches and requires that priests and church employees all be local people.
It has also banned religious teaching in schools in the Wa region, while UWSA functionaries have been forbidden to serve as members of any religious organization.
The UWSA leadership has also pledged to punish any local administration cadres who are found to be supporting missionary activities.
The 30,000-strong UWSA — Myanmar’s largest ethnic army — is understood to be one of the major drug-trafficking groups in Southeast Asia.
In April, the UWSA celebrated the 30th anniversary of its founding with a military parade that showed some of its high-tech arsenal including heavy artillery drones and a Chinese helicopter. The parade was held in Pangkham, the de facto capital of the unrecognized territory of Wa State in eastern Myanmar.