The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has allowed over 50 churches to reopen in the areas under its control in northern Shan State after ordering them shut last year.
Lahu Baptist Convention (LBC) Secretary General Reverend Lazarus told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that churches in Panghsang, Hopang, Kho Pang and Namphan townships were allowed to reopen and that only one church and one school associated with the group remain closed.
“We have 52 churches and we were able to reopen almost all of them,” said Rev. Lazarus.
The UWSA shut down over 100 churches of the LBC and Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) in September 2018 and detained over 200 people who were working for the churches, though they were later released, according to local sources.
Nyi Rang, a spokesperson for the UWSA based in Lashio in northern Shan State, told The Irrawaddy that the armed group began allowing some churches to reopen in October and gave permission for the rest of them to reopen this month.
“We let them reopen their churches. Almost all their churches have been opened,” he said.
Nyi Rang told The Irrawaddy last year that the UWSA shut down churches in its territory in order to prevent extremist religious leaders from destabilizing the region. He said this week that the UWSA has allowed the churches to reopen because the group has finished its investigations.
However, Nyi Rang added that some schools associated with the churches remain shut, as there is still an ongoing investigation into their operations.
The LBC said they welcomed the action from the UWSA.
“We expected that we would all be able to go back to the Wa region soon and work on our religious affairs peacefully,” said Rev. Lazarus. He added that he expected the UWSA would soon allow the single church and school that remain closed to reopen.
KBC Chairman Reverend Hkalam Samson also told The Irrawaddy that all the KBC churches in Wa region were allowed to reopen. However, he said that he did not have current information about the situation on the ground.
The UWSA maintains full control of the Wa Self-Administered Division, 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 other groups. They observe various religious beliefs including Christianity, Buddhism, animism 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-time 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 (NCA), but maintains an ongoing bilateral peace deal with the Myanmar government.
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