This file image shows members of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) travelling in a convoy in Poung Par Khem region on June 26, 2017. The UWSA, a 30,000-strong militia known as Asia's most heavily-armed drug dealers, boast their own autonomous territories on the border with China and have close links with Beijing. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
A second group of Catholic clergy and laypeople have been expelled from Myanmar's northern Shan State by a China-backed ethnic minority army.
Two Salesian priests, three nuns from the Missionary Society of St. Paul and three lay teachers were ordered by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) to leave the Wa Hills, which borders with China.
Father Raymond Than, one of the expelled members of the clergy who arrived in the state's Lashio town Oct. 15, said Wa officials three days earlier issued the expulsion order for clergy who arrived in the region after 1992.
They were only allowed to take what they could carry and were told that a local boarding school and an 'Our Lady of Rosary' chapel was being cordoned off, Father Raymond Than told ucanews.com.
Inside Our Lady of the Rosary chapel in Wingkao parish, Wa hills in northern Shan State near the Myanmar border with China, February 2017. (Photo by Leo Mang)
Local Christians were being forbidden from worshipping, even in their own homes.
The clergy and laypeople had been providing education and health care services for locals and had not done anything wrong, said Father Than, who has served in Wingko parish since 2016.
"We are not problem-makers," he added.
Some Wa officials and their Chinese allies believe that a number of Christian groups contain members aligned to American intelligence organizations.
Wa officials had indicated that there was no prospect of the Christians who have been expelled being allowed to return to continue their mission activities.
In Wingko parish, Salesians have run a boarding school since 1996 and 56 students, from Grade 1 to Matriculation exam level, were enrolled there.
Most were ethnic-Lahu Catholics, but there were also some non-Christian members of the Wa ethnic group.
Father Than said arrangements had been made for the students to attend a government-run school with the agreement of the headmistress.
"We will continue to provide food and school expenses of the students," the priest said.
Some 14 Lahu students from Wingko boarding school are graduates and one was ordained as a deacon in early October.
The Salesian-run boarding school for boys in Wingkao parish, Wa hills in northern Shan State near the Myanmar-China border, February 2017. (Photo by Leo Mang)
It was Wa officials who invited the church to the region and it was the Salesians who answered the call in 1992.
Before 1960, the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions began operating in the Wa hills and some Lahu people became Catholics, according to church records.
In late September this year, a priest, five nuns and six lay teachers were expelled as part of a campaign since Sept. 13 in which the UWSA — which grew out of the Communist Party of what was formerly known as Burma — destroyed churches, detained pastors and closed religious schools.
The UWSA leadership has deemed only churches built between 1989 and 1992 to be legal, as well as banning construction of new churches, and banning outside clerics along with the teaching of religion in local schools.
The Wa region is home to ethnic groups including the Wa, Kachin, Ta'ang, Lahu, Lisu, Kokang and Shan who observe Christianity, Buddhism, animism, spirit worship and Islam. Christians comprise around 30 percent of the estimated 450,000 Wa population.
The 30,000-strong UWSA is accused of large-scale involvement in drug-trafficking.