Drugs and bullets in Myanmar
As more people in Kachin fall victim to drug abuse, Christian group Pat Jasan is taking matters into its own hands.
Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar – Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state and Myanmar’s northernmost region, is a bustling market town and a central trading point between Myanmar, China and India.
The state is also renowned for its many illicit and undercover industries, such as jade and gold mining, timber and opium.
A large government military presence is heavily felt in the state in reaction to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) rebellion and local natural resources. The conflict, which escalated again on June 9, 2011, after a 17-year ceasefire, has created thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Kachin state.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2015 South East Asia Opium Survey (PDF), heroin production has stayed at stable high levels since 2012, and across Kachin state a drug epidemic has developed. Though the Burmese government has not conducted an official drugs survey, the Transnational Institute has stated that “Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium after Afghanistan”.
Just yesterday, on February 7, a Buddhist monk was discovered to be in the possession of massive amounts of methamphetamine tablets. He was arrested when 400,000 pills were discovered in his car as he drove from Shwe Baho village in Rakhine state. A search of his monastery yielded a further four million pills, according to AFP.
But the matter is multifaceted and politicised, according to organisations monitoring the problem.
According to Ahgu Khin, steering committee secretary of the church-based anti-drugs organisation Pat Jasan, “The drug issue is made worse because the military uses it as a weapon.” He says: “They are fighting the Kachin people with drugs as well as bullets, keeping people addicted.
“The Kachin people have been trying to get recognition or independence from the rest of Burma, and that is why many are fighting the government army.”
On April 25, 2014, in reaction to the growing drug problem, “D-Day” was declared by the newly formed anti-drugs coalition of church- and community-based activists of Pat Jasan, whose goal is to “completely eradicate drugs from the Kachin people”, says Ahgu Khin. The organisation runs awareness and education campaigns, rehabilitation centres and has a vigilante element that arrests and prosecutes drug users and dealers.
“The KIA has been trying to destroy the [opium] fields and reduce the drug problem for many years,” Ahgu Khin explains (PDF).
“They cannot win because the government military allows militias and the Burmese border force to grow and distribute the drugs freely. So the Kachin community and church leaders decided to create Pat Jasan to fight these drugs at a community level.”
The United States state department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2016 states that despite Myanmar’s government domestic corruption law in 2013, “many in Burma assume senior government officials benefit from narcotics trafficking”.
However, no high-level officials have been arrested to date, and this practice, according to the report, is not an official policy of the Burmese government, despite “credible reports” alleging that “mid-level military officers and government officials are engaged in drug-related corruption”.
Al Jazeera was unable to reach Myanmar government representatives for comment on this situation.
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At the Catholic Pat Jasan Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre, recovering drug users play football, study the Bible and sing together as they fight their addictions. The patients are not allowed to leave, and the compound is surrounded by a large metal wall.
It is operated by John Zau Aung, a local Catholic relief worker with a long career in helping IDPs, drug users and other people affected by the nearby war.
He believes that “there is a political deception because the government and military purposely spread the heroin. The militia groups target poor and young people and the farmers who grow the drugs are paid in heroin, which they either use or sell.”
Tom Kramer is a political scientist and researcher at the Transnational Institute who has worked for more than 15 years in Myanmar and its border regions. He has found that the military’s main concern is security and conflict management rather than drug production.
However, the army “has many allied non-government militias that they either support or create which are not part of the peace process, and these militias are involved with the production and trafficking of drugs.
“It is a very difficult thing to prove, but it is safe to assume that all armed groups, including the Myanmar military, are involved in the drugs trade one way or another,” Kramer continues.
“For instance, some groups will tax opium farmers in the same way they would tax rice farmers. You can also tax drugs transportation in your area, or drugs production in your area, or even organise drugs production in your area. There can be a whole range of different levels of involvement at a low level. It is much more difficult to get evidence at a high level, even if we know it is there,” Kramer notes.
“It is such a difficult conflict and to fund this means you would expect that there had to be some involvement from higher levels.”
This mistrust of outside and governmental programmes is strong throughout the Kachin people. There are rumours of tablet-making machines on government military bases, as well as the sale of drugs in the government-run rehabilitation centres.
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A complicated matter
Bawn Hkaw, 23, is one of the centre’s patients. He came voluntarily when he relapsed after previous stays in two other Pat Jasan rehab camps, of which there are currently 29. Bawn Hkaw has been addicted to heroin for four years. He started using drugs in high school, where he had been a “troubled student”.
Soon after, the drug dealers approached him to sell drugs in the educational establishments he could access with his student card.
Ahgu Khin claims that drug usage is very common in the local schools and the Kachin state universities. Pat Jasan’s patients often include children as young as 13.
Tang Gun, a youth director in several local church organisations and Pat Jasan member, believes that the local environment and natural resources alongside a lack of rule of law play a massive role in the drug epidemic.
“In this region, we have a lot of natural resources, so there are lots of immigrants from other states in Myanmar, such as Shan state and even Burma, coming to work in the mines alongside the locals. These people are often paid in heroin, and the conditions are very bad,” say Tang Gun.
“We have been under the military government for decades, and [in these times], there was a restriction on people coming together or becoming an organisation. No more than five people together in a space, unless it was a religious or family setting. It meant that even though we can see the drugs, we couldn’t organise together to change these things or educate the people. Most drug users in Kachin are poor, uneducated and jobless and do not understand what they are getting into, and this was made worse due to years of neglect,” Tang Gun says.
Tang Nau, 37, is currently a client at the New Life in Christ Centre, a Kachin Baptist Church rehabilitation compound that is small and crowded. Before being admitted for rehabilitation, he was addicted to heroin for 10 years, which he claims to have picked up while working in a jade mine.
“Before [rehabilitation], I was doing bad things; lots of drugs,” says Tang Nau.
“I used to have my own business in the jade mines. We would wait at the bottom, and the bosses would throw the smaller unwanted bits down the mountain, and everyone would run and start fighting to get just a little bit to sell. It gave me lots of stress. Most people at the mines were on drugs. I started there,” Tang Nau tells.
At another Pat Jasan rehab centre in Myitkyina, local operational volunteers drink tea and discuss their current investigations.
Wearing military-style vests and soldier’s helmets, they look like a small paramilitary force. Pat Jasan’s volunteers do not use weapons other than bamboo canes, and many drug users or dealers will fight back during the arrest.
John Phung Gan, 45, is one the volunteers responsible for investigating, arrests and guarding some of the centres, but does not worry about his safety.
Outside his Pat Jasan duties, he works as a vegetable farmer and occasionally at the jade mines.
He sees many people using drugs, including his own friends and relatives, and this is what brought him to volunteering with the organisation. Other volunteers agree. Their personal experiences with family members and friends convinced them to put their own safety on the line by helping the local community.
“I feel that it is hard to do it ourselves,” says John Phung Gan. “We need cooperation from the government to actually get rid of drugs. The government is always covering up the problems in Kachin state.”
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Changing the mindset
Many Pat Jasan members have been arrested owing to their activities with the group which have been perceived as harsh and lawless.
The group, which as of autumn 2016, have no official authority, forcibly detain people. All Pat Jasan clients are required to spend two weeks in the “detox room” – a small cage they cannot leave while going through the initial withdrawal process.
They are often restrained in this time and defecate in the cage. They are not given any withdrawal relief or medicine.
Dr Tun Tun Brang works for Substance Abuse Research Association (SARA), a local drug-related NGO that offers counselling, education and medical treatment, as well as operate harm reduction programmes.
“We have a different strategy for Pat Jasan,” Tun Tun Brang says. “SARA has created a harm reduction programme through education, medical advice and a needle exchange – as 40-50 percent of drug users in Kachin state have HIV. We also try to help reintegrate people back into society by offering vocational training,” Tun Tun Brang tells Al Jazeera.
“No single treatment will work in regard to addiction. Drug users need an environmental and social change in their lives. There is a huge and inspiring community involvement in this social movement, but the problem is that most of the staff in the camps are not trained in treating addiction – neither are many medical doctors,” Tun Tun Brangs says. “Physically, yes. Two weeks in the detox room will remove the drugs from their bodies. But in the long term, patients need a drastic environmental change [so as to not relapse].”
“Internationally, there has always been a resistance to voluntary harm reduction techniques,” says Kramer. “However, there is always a positive outcome.”
Kramer believes that wider issues in Kachin state and Myanmar need to be addressed before the issue of drugs will be solved.
“Opium farmers suffer issues such as poverty and conflict, so will continue to grow the drugs. It is very hard to solve these problems without solving the conflict in Myanmar first,” he says.
Reverend Gyung Hkawng, the chairman of the Pat Jasan steering committee, explains how Pat Jasan’s policy is not to use medicine, but to use Christian spiritual ways to treat their clients.
“We don’t emphasise treatment as we don’t believe these programmes will work on the Kachin people. They will not change their mindset through spiritual bondage and using the word of God and prayer.”
Kramer relates to these feelings.
“Heroin is cheap and widely available and this affects the poor, young and students the worst,” he says.
“There is very little being done to keep drugs off the market in Kachin state, and few services available to people who are using drugs. There is a very strong sentiment in Kachin state that the army is using the drugs as a weapon of war against them,” Kramer explains.
“This may or may not be the case, but the sentiment is there and this why you have the Pat Jasan movement trying to take matters into their own hands. However, by targeting the opium farmers and drug users, you really are targeting the lower end of the drugs trade. I understand where the Pat Jasan movement is coming from, but I believe their methods to be harsh. Everybody, even drug users, has human rights.”
Ahgu Khin disagrees. “Since the start of the war in 2011, more than 500 KIA soldiers have died. However, many more have died from drugs,” he says.
“It is part of their [the military’s] war on the Kachin people. It is clear to see why this firm reaction to drugs has come about in Kachin state, but after decades of isolation and repression, Pat Jasan seem convinced in doing it their own way.”