Silhouettes of members of the UWSA (United Wa State Army) in this file image taken on June 26, 2017. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
A group of Catholic clergy and lay teachers have been expelled from Myanmar's northern Shan State by a China-backed ethnic minority army.
A Catholic priest told ucanews.com that a Salesian priest, five nuns from the Missionary Society of St. Paul and six lay teachers were ordered by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) to leave the northern Wa region of the state which borders China.
"Local children and people are very disappointed by the expulsions of the priest, nuns and teachers," said the priest who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Salesians and Missionary Society of St. Paul provide education and healthcare services to people in the remote region.
There are no Catholic churches in the area and priests celebrate Mass in their residences.
Children and a teacher of a Catholic Church-run boarding school in the Wa region of northern Shan State near the Chinese border in April 2017. (Photo credit to Leo Mang)
The expulsions come as part of a campaign in which the UWSA — which originated as the Communist Party of Burma — has destroyed unauthorized churches, detained pastors and closed religious schools in the Wa region of Shan State since Sept. 13.
Several pastors and teachers from Baptist churches have been detained by the UWSA. All Baptist schools have also been closed.
The priest said the clampdown in Mong Mao, Wa's second largest town, looks set to worsen with UWSA militia in the process of inspecting all churches, schools and convents.
Catholic Church officials in Myanmar are planning to send a letter to the UWSA liaison office in Lashio, Shan State. The letter will explain the Catholic Church's education and healthcare programs in the Wa region, which have been ongoing for nearly 30 years.
It was Wa officials who first invited the church to the region and it was the Salesians who initially answered the call, said the priest.
Lashio Diocese that covers the Wa region was not officially informed by the UWSA about the clampdown, according to church sources.
The UWSA leadership has instructed its troops and administrators to find out what missionaries are doing in the Wa region.
They have also stated that all churches built after 1992 have been illegally constructed and will be destroyed. Only churches built between 1989 and 1992 have been deemed legal.
The UWSA has likewise banned the construction of new churches and requires that priests and workers in churches must be local, not foreign.
It has also banned religious teaching in schools in the Wa region, while UWSA functionaries have been forbidden to be members of any religious organizations.
The UWSA leadership has additionally pledged to punish any local administration cadres supporting missionary activities.
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 — Myanmar's largest ethnic army — is understood to be one of the major drug-trafficking groups in the Southeast Asian region.