UWSA Cracks Down on Church Construction, Recruitment by ‘Extremist’ Christians

By Lawi Weng 20 September 2018

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is cracking down on the unauthorized construction of Christian churches in Pangsang, the capital of Wa Region, according to local sources.

Several video clips posted on Facebook and other social media platforms show members of the UWSA using tools to tear down an unauthorized church. Christian religious leaders have also been detained by authorities, according to reports on social media.

Nyi Rang, a UWSA spokesperson based in Lashio, told The Irrawaddy that the action was intended to prevent extremist religious leaders from destabilizing the region.  A UWSA Central Committee meeting held early this month decided not to allow the teaching of religion in schools, to limit the number of churches in the region and to demolish churches built after 1992 that had not received approval from officials.

He said his organization’s police had detained several people for questioning on suspicion of engaging in illegal construction.

“The laws in our region do not allow people to build churches without permission,” Nyi Rang said.

He described those who had been detained as religious extremists who acted unlawfully.

According to a Burmese-language translation of a UWSA statement issued in the Wa language on Sept. 13, all churches built after 1992 would be destroyed as they had been built illegally. Only churches built between 1989 and 1992 were legal, it said.

Authorities would also check on the number of Christian schoolteachers and students in the region, according to the statement.

“We will not allow the building of new churches here anymore. Nor will we allow [Christian] organizations to accept new members,” said the statement.

The authority will also monitor the activities of organizations that support churches in the region. Evangelical Christians will not be allowed to proselytize at schools, the statement added.

Only ethnic Wa would be allowed to train as religious leaders, and they would be under the authority of the UWSA central government, according to the statement.

Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) chairman Rev. Samson, whose church has been conducting baptisms in Wa Region for more than 30 years, said the ban was prompted by the activities of extremist missionaries.

“You can’t call them typical Christians. They are just people who want to attack established churches. They are against what we Christians believe,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Some Christian groups had been confining new converts to churches and not allowing them to go home, he said. Additionally, UWSA leaders were angered when Christian groups posted a video on social media that condemned the local practice among ethnic Wa of worshipping “nats”(spirits), Rev. Samson said. Nats are spirits worshipped by local people in conjunction with Buddhism.

The UWSA has temporarily shut down all churches, but will allow some to reopen after it completes its investigation of Christian leaders, he said.

The UWSA has full authority in the Wa Region, where the Myanmar government has no presence.

The region is home to various ethnic groups including Wa, Kachin, Ta’ang, Lahu, Lisu, Kokang, Shan, Chinese, Burmese and Muslim groups. They observe various religious beliefs including Christianity, Buddhism, animism, nat worship, and Islam. The largest religious group is Christian.

Based in northern Shan State, the UWSA is the largest ethnic armed force in Myanmar, with an estimated 40,000 personnel. Most leaders of the group have communist views, a reflection of their long proximity to the Chinese border. The UWSA split from the Burmese Communist Party in 1989 and later entered a ceasefire agreement with the military government that ruled Myanmar at the time. The UWSA has not yet signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, but is party to the ongoing bilateral peace deal with the Myanmar government.

The Irrawaddy reporter Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint contributed to this story.