The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has detained 92 Lahu Christian leaders and 42 Wa students in Shan State, and the students have been forced to serve as soldiers, the Christian group said.
Based in northern Shan, the UWSA is Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group.
In a statement dated Sept. 25, LBC (Lahu Baptist Convention) said that 52 churches had been closed and stripped of all Christian symbols. Three other churches were demolished, and religious schools have been shut down, it said. The LBC is based in Kengtung, eastern Shan.
“We sent our statement to [the UWSA], but they haven’t replied yet,” said Rev. Dr. Lazarus, general secretary of the LBC.
However, contacted after the LBC statement was released, Lashio-based UWSA spokesman Nyi Rang told The Irrawaddy that his organization had detained the group’s religious leaders because there were “extremists” among them. In an earlier comment made last week, he told The Irrawaddy that the UWSA’s actions against Christian groups in the area were intended to prevent extremist religious leaders from destabilizing the region.
The LBC asked other Baptist groups in Myanmar to pray for the detainees’ release.
“We are very worried about our members who have been detained because we have lost contact with them. We heard that when they were taken, they were not allowed to take their clothes with them. The weather in Mong Pauk is cold,” Rev. Dr. Lazarus said.
“We heard the UWSA plans to hold the detainees until the group celebrates the 30th anniversary of its ceasefire with the Myanmar government [in April 2019],” he said.
The 42 students are all ethnic Wa, according to Rev. Dr. Lazarus. The UWSA initially detained more students but released those who were not Wa. The 42 students have been pressed into military service by the UWSA, the reverend said.
“We want them to be released as soon as possible. Our Baptist members are all praying for them,” he said.
The UWSA has also shut down churches belonging to the Kachin Baptist Convention and the Wa Baptist Convention, according to local sources.
The LBC is based in Mong Pauk Township, which is a majority ethnic Lahu community. There are about 400 churches in eastern Shan, according to Rev. Dr. Lazarus.
The UWSA began ordering churches in the area under its control to shut down earlier this month. It issued an order that all “illegal” churches built without its permission should be destroyed.
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.