Myanmar Bible students relieved to escape Wa army

Forced recruits tramped through jungle to find refuge at Lahu Baptist church
Myanmar Bible students relieved to escape Wa army

A member of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) stands guard during a ceremony in this file photo taken on June 26, 2017. The China-backed UWSA is clamping down on Christianity in the Wa region. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

Timothy, an 18-year-old Bible student, didn't expect to be forcibly recruited by the ethnic Wa army in Shan State near Myanmar's border with China.

He and 20 other students expected to return to school after being detained by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) for a few days, but they were sent to a different area for military training that included learning to use firearms and arduous runs three times a day,

"It was heavy training and they beat us if we stopped," Timothy told ucanews.com. "Even if we were not feeling well, we had to look at others people's training exercises. Even on Sundays, we had to do work such as collecting firewood."

After enduring the training regime with limited food for more than 60 days, he and three colleagues decided to run away as they feared they would be in the army for several years.

"We were trembling with fear that we would be caught by Wa army officials," Timothy recalled.

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They had to take food for three days and didn't know the way to a safe area until they were helped by villagers. They finally reached a Lahu Baptist church in Kengtung in eastern Shan State in late November.

"We feel we are safe and have peace of mind in our hearts as we take refuge at the church," Timothy said.

Moses, another Bible student, escaped from the Wa army with four other forced recruits to reach Kengtung in October.

"We discussed our escape plan quietly as we would be beaten if Wa officials knew earlier," the 18-year-old told ucanews.com.

"We walked for three days and took fruits for meals while we passed through a jungle. We were weak and took medication as soon as we arrived at the church in Kengtung."

The Baptist church has provided food, medication, counseling and shelter to the 21 escaped students who have arrived in the town since Oct. 17.

One student was suffering from tuberculosis and was admitted to hospital for several days, while some others needed nutrition and counseling.

Shadrach, a Baptist leader who looks after the students, said some private donors and other Baptist churches had given contributions.

"We are planning to send them off to a Bible school somewhere else as they can't go back to the Wa hills," he said.

He said the students are concerned for the safety of their parents who remain in the Wa hills. "I feel the Wa army is attempting to wipe the identity of Lahu Christians out from the region," he told ucanews.com.

Some 20 female students remain at the headquarters of the UWSA, which is backed by neighboring China.

The students' ordeal began in mid-September when they were forcibly recruited as part of a UWSA clampdown on Christianity.

They were taken from Mong Pawk township where 52 churches have been shut down, three have been destroyed and 92 Lahu Baptist leaders detained. The students' Bible school was also closed.

China is believed to be pressuring the UWSA to conduct a campaign that has included the detention of pastors.

The UWSA has announced that all churches built after 1992 were illegally constructed and will be destroyed. Only churches built between 1989 and 1992 have been deemed legal.

It has banned the construction of new churches and requires priests and workers in churches to 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 also 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.

The 30,000-strong UWSA, Myanmar's largest ethnic army, is also understood to be one of the major drug-trafficking groups in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar's government, which has no control over the Wa self-administered region, has been silent over the crackdown on Christianity.

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