With the matter of the Rohingya Muslim persecution still to be resolved, Myanmar is seeing yet more large-scale religious violence in its land. And this time, it is the Christian communities of Myanmar that are under attack from an ethnic army that calls itself the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The Christian persecution
The UWSA is highly active in the Wa region of Myanmar and recently detained about 92 pastors, accusing them of being influenced by “foreign powers.” Forty-one students who were present for Bible studies at various churches were also forced to join the UWSA as fighters. About 52 churches have been shut down and three churches have been almost completely destroyed by the ethnic army.
“Wa military leaders believe there are religious extremists in Wa territory, including missionaries who have not obtained official permission and clergy members who are operating outside the law,” World Watch Monitor quotes Nyi Ran, a UWSA communications official.
The UWSA also declared in a Facebook post that all the missionaries, churches, and clergymen in the region will be investigated, and those who were found to be associated with missionary activities of foreign churches will be punished. The ethnic army proposes to destroy all churches built after 1989 while also ensuring that no new churches will be allowed to be built in the region.
“We haven’t received any official letter [from the UWSA] about it. What I think is that this is a pre-emptive policy to ensure that people do not convert to Christianity when clergy members do missionary work,” Radio Free Asia quotes Saw Shwe Lin, general secretary of the Myanmar Council of Churches.
The Chinese connection
The UWSA is said to be influenced by the Chinese Communist Party since several top members of the ethnic army became rich by trading with Beijing. And since the Chinese government is known to harbor a strong anti-religious sentiment and a mistrust of foreign missionaries, Beijing seems to be injecting the same feelings into UWSA and other ethno-nationalist groups. Myanmar’s trouble with the West over the Rohingya crisis has also helped China to strengthen its influence in the country by posing as a “trusted friend” against the “evil West.”
“With Myanmar’s broad relations with the West deteriorating over the flight of some 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas into Bangladesh amid reports of abuse, China has turned the crisis into a diplomatic opportunity to regain earlier lost influence. From that position of strength, Beijing seems keen to export its model of Christian repression into areas of Myanmar where it has sway and historical reasons to fear Western infiltration,” says an article at Asia Times.
In May, the U.S. State Department had released a report that claimed that religious minorities like Christians are severely persecuted in Myanmar, assigning the country the status of Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for suppressing freedom of faith. And though a spokesperson had implored Myanmar to protect the religious freedoms of its citizens, its government has clearly failed in protecting its minorities from persecution.
As of now, Myanmar Christians are living in fear, for an ethno-nationalist group can violently target them at any time, destroying their churches and forcing them to abandon their faith. Only resolute action from the U.S. and the international community can ensure their safety.