The United Wa State Army (UWSA) orders its members to “find out what the [Christian] missionaries are doing and what are their intensions.” It bans new church construction and allows only local priests to minister. Beijing’s shadow affects the local peace process.
Naypyidaw (AsiaNews) – Churches, priests and Christian missionaries working in Wa, a mountainous region in the eastern state of Shan, are victims of the repression of Myanmar’s largest rebel army, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the armed wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP). The latter rules the self-proclaimed State of Wa and boasts historical ties with Beijing.
On 6 September, UWSA released a six-point statement instructing all of its military officers and administrators to “find out what the [Christian] missionaries are doing and what are their intensions.”
The Chinese language statement pledges to punish any local officials who support missionary activities. It bans the construction of new Christian churches and requires that priests and workers in existing churches must be local not foreign.
The announcement also prohibits religious teaching in schools in the Wa area and UWSP officials are no longer allowed to be members of any “religious organisations,” the Asia Times reports.
The decree uses the Chinese term jidujiao for Christianity, a term used for Protestants and evangelical Christians, and not tianzhujiao, which is used to denote Roman Catholics.
Hardly coincidentally, the announcement comes after John Cao, an ethnic Chinese pastor and permanent US resident, was arrested in China in March for illegally crossing the Sino-Myanmar border. In June, he was sentenced to seven years in prison on immigration-related charges.
Experts say both Beijing and the USWP see the emergence of faith-based organisations and movements as a threat to their authority.
Around a century ago, mainly American evangelical missionaries converted some Wa to Christianity. At present, it is estimated that Christians make up 30 per cent of the 450,000 Wa.
Originally from southern China, the Wa settled across the border. Consequently, there were churches in the area when it was taken over by the insurgent Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the early 1970s.
The CPB’s leaders, orthodox Maoists steeped in the tradition of China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, were forced into exile into China, where Chinese authorities provided them with housing and pensions.
The CPB’s army, once heavily supplied by China, subsequently split into four different ethnic militias, one of which, the UWSA, emerged as the strongest with 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers.
The UWSA is also one of several ethnic armed groups that did not sign the Myanmar government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) in 2015.
The group leads a political coalition called the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), set up with six other non-signatory groups in April 2017 to hold political negotiations and discuss peace-building with the Myanmar government.
The Wa rebel army participated as an observer at a recent meeting (5 September) between the government’s Peace Commission (PC) and representatives of three armed groups that belong to the Northern Alliance, in Kunming, Yunnan (southern China), mediated by China’s Foreign Ministry.
Analysts note Beijing's ambiguous behaviour in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts. Activists accuse the Chinese of trying to influence the difficult peace process undertaken by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar has significant strategic relevance for Beijing. The success of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends on access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar.