Myanmar’s CCP-Backed Wa State a Hostile Place for Christians
By Gina Goh, Jay Church
This article is part of a series analyzing the unique challenges facing Myanmar’s Christian population after the coup on February 1, 2021. Click here for more background on the situation and here for a preview of the series.
04/22/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – For decades, Myanmar’s many ethnic militias have warred against the Burmese Army, or Tatmadaw, in a long fight for greater autonomy, access to basic rights, and self-determination. Most militias control only very limited areas and are fighting to wrest territory from the central government, but one—the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—runs Wa State autonomously, though it maintains deep ties with both the Burmese government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The UWSA patterns its form of government after the Communist system that China uses, complete with a central committee and central party that together run the government. As in China, Communist influence has led to wariness of Christianity, which is seen as antithetical to the ultimate allegiance demanded by the party.
The connection between persecution in China and persecution in Wa goes deeper than ideological roots, though. When China’s Revised Regulations on Religious Affairs took effect in 2018, the CCP began to crack down on house churches and authorities in Wa followed suit soon after, tearing down crosses and demolishing churches. Authorities put Church leaders in jail to deter congregations from gathering, and it was not until late 2019 that churches were allowed to reopen even in part.
Wa’s history is complex but must be understood to make sense of the ongoing persecution happening today.
History & Background
Like the rest of Myanmar, Wa’s history stretches well beyond the formation of the modern state. Wa is a mountainous area and was populated by a number of separate tribes without any kind of unified government. This unstructured approach was continued under British rule of Myanmar, which stretched from 1824 to 1948. The British practiced several models of governance around the country but did not administer Wa at all.
The Chinese Nationalist Party, Kuomintang, retreated to the Wa area in the late 1940s, after losing the battle to CCP. This incentivized the CCP to begin supporting the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Their partnership allowed the CCP to establish a foothold of its own in Myanmar and pressure the Kuomintang out of the area. China’s support for the CPB in the form of arms and manpower quickly made it the most powerful militia in Myanmar.
The CPB supported a loose guerrilla government in Wa for some time, eventually expanding its operations in Wa in the 1960s after losing ground in central Myanmar. The CCP again aided in this expansion, and many Communist youth from China joined the CPB, further deepening ties between Wa and China.
China has continued to exert influence in Wa even as the CPB was restructured in 1989. China’s influence today largely centers around its relations with UWSA, economically, culturally, and militarily. China regularly engages in significant economic projects with Wa and has given the UWSA significant weaponry, including machine guns, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles. Culturally, Mandarin is the major spoken language and even Wa’s currency is Chinese renminbi.
Many Wa residents practice Buddhism, Islam, animism, and spirit worship, but Christianity is the most practiced religion in Wa despite significant pushback from the UWSA and the CCP.
Crackdown on Christianity
In September 2018, the UWSA launched a campaign against Christian churches, claiming only churches built between 1989 and 1992 were built legally. The campaign involved the tearing down of crosses and the demolition of churches built since 1992. Videos of these demolitions emerged on social media. The reasoning, according to a UWSA spokesman, was to prevent religious extremism from destabilizing the region. “The laws in our region do not allow people to build churches without permission,” said the spokesman.
The UWSA also announced that it would not allow churches to be built going forward and that it would prevent Christian organizations from adding to their membership.
ICC’s partner on the ground reported that scores of Christians, including many pastors, were detained or kept under “village arrest,” in which they are prevented from leaving their home village. Additionally, some Christian children were forcibly conscripted into the UWSA to serve as militia members. All told, many hundreds of Christian families in Wa were impacted whether through the destruction of their church, the killing of family members, or conscription.
Pastor Stephen and his wife Mara* were among those imprisoned during the crackdown. Before the government put them in prison, Mara was pregnant with twins. She delivered the twins while still incarcerated but received no prenatal care or special accommodations. The babies were born alive, but both died before their mother was released.
The CCP’s arrest of Chinese pastor John Sanqiang Cao, a North Carolina resident, is also noteworthy. His arrest predated the 2018 Wa crackdown. Chinese authorities have held Pastor Cao since March 5, 2017, sentencing him in March 2018 to seven years in prison and fining him $3,000 for “organizing illegal border crossings” and exerting foreign influence.
Before his arrest, Pastor Cao helped build sixteen schools since 2013, serving 2,000 impoverished children in Wa. He also established educational projects to help alleviate poverty among local minority groups, increase medical access, and campaign against drug use. His arrest was likely a result of the UWSA and CCP working together to target Christian leaders who do not submit to the Communist regime. It also may have deterred other mission groups from entering Wa State to “exert foreign influence.”
Challenges Faced by Christians in Wa State
While the ongoing coup has little direct effect on the autonomous Wa State, the UWSA has expressed its support for the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw has led to the persecution of Burmese religious minorities, including Christians, for decades. There are even rumors that the Tatmadaw plans to escape to Wa should the military junta be deposed and the democratically-elected civilian government be reinstated.
Wa’s ties to the Tatmadaw and its increasingly close relationship with the CCP promise a difficult future for Wa Christians who find themselves caught between the Buddhist nationalism peddled by the Tatmadaw and the aggressive state-sponsored atheism of the CCP.
*Names changed for security reasons.
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