Burma’s Grassroots War on Drugs

Burma’s Grassroots War on Drugs

MYITKYINA, BURMA — Perched on the west bank of the picturesque Irrawaddy River, Myitkyina looks like a typical northern Burmese town of churches and timber houses. It’s a dusty, non-descript place, flooded with Chinese goods and full of locals eager to practice their English.

But the town’s idyllic exterior belies a stark reality: Myitkyina is fighting a heroin epidemic that has spiraled out of control. “This has become a race against time,” says Aung Gun, the local head of Pat Jasan, an anti-drug squad based here in Kachin, Burma’s northernmost state. “Drug use has become a kind of genocide.”

The local Kachin people — a mostly Christian ethnic group in a Buddhist-majority country — have long struggled against the Burmese government for the right to self-rule. After nearly 20 years of uneasy peace, a ceasefire between the rebels and the Burmese army collapsed in 2011. The resulting fighting displaced an estimated 100,000 people. But locals say that heroin now claims more lives than the renewed fighting.

After Afghanistan, Burma is the largest opium producer in the world. Here in Kachin, the easy availability of cheap, strong heroin has fueled addiction, particularly among underemployed young people. Evidence of the epidemic is everywhere — from used needles along the train tracks to signs in restaurants warning against drug use.

Dr. Tun Tun, the local coordinator for the Substance Abuse Research Association — one of very few local NGOs that run harm reduction programs — told me that kids as young as 12 are injecting heroin. And at just 60 U.S. cents for one hit, their habits are hardly going to break the budget. “Every family here has one drug user,” he said. “It affects everyone.” United Nations statistics appear to bear this out. In its Southeast Asia Opium Survey in 2014, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that opium use had more than doubled and the use of heroin and methamphetamines had more than tripled in poppy-growing areas of northern Burma since 2012.

Fed up with waiting for the government to do something about the epidemic, and witnessing the devastation it wreaks (from skyrocketing rates of HIV and hepatitis C to deaths from overdoses), some locals have banded together to launch their own “war on drugs.” Formed in April 2014, Pat Jasan is a hardline Christian anti-drug squad that claims tens of thousands of members. The group’s vigilantes, dressed in military-style uniforms and armed with batons, have detained thousands of drug users, forcibly removing them from their homes and putting them into Christian rehabilitation centers run by churches or other groups.

“This team wasn’t formed by one person,” Gun, the group’s local head, told me. “It’s from the grassroots level. We all agreed to fight against drugs and are willing to make a better community. The objective of arresting people is to save them from drug abuse and help them recover.”

Many locals agree with Pat Jasan’s harsh approach to “rehabilitation.” But another tactic the group employs — the wholesale destruction of poppy fields — is far more controversial. It has even led to armed conflict. Earlier this year, at the height of the harvest season, Pat Jasan vigilantes destroyed thousands of hectares of fields, leading to armed confrontations with local militias and Burmese security forces.

Despite the violence, Gun maintains that destroying the fields is the way to curb local drug abuse and to decrease sales to neighboring China, Japan and even as far field as Australia. “There is no rule of law. If farmers keep growing poppies, we will punish them,” Gun said, unfazed by the impact it would have on their livelihoods. “Burma is very poor and there’s a lot of income in drugs, so of course everyone wants to earn big money — from the [government] cronies to the authorities and Chinese businessmen,” he said, adding that the military was complicit in the drug trade.

In 1999, Burma launched a 15-year plan to stamp out poppy cultivation, but the deadline has since been extended to 2019. Whether the country’s new government — its first ever to be freely elected — will meet this goal remains to be seen. So far, the party of Burma’s world-famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has shown wary support for Pat Jasan’s activities, even voting for an emergency bill that would provide protection to the vigilantes, though it does not specify how. Similarly, the government’s new drug policy, supposedly under development, remains unclear. In any event, since the still-powerful military and its allies have been implicated in the drug trade, the success of any government policy on this front will be open to question.

Given the government’s inaction, it’s understandable why Burma’s civil society — which had been brutally suppressed for decades — is eager to help solve the problem. But Pat Jasan is a stark reminder that viewing any “civil society” activity as necessarily positive paints too simple a picture.

According to most drug experts, publicly shaming and beating drug users and forcing them into rehabilitation centers — not to mention destroying farmers’ livelihoods — is counterproductive. Instead, they say the solution must include providing farmers with a realistic alternative way to make an income and ending the ethnic conflict.

“UNODC does not believe that drug eradication is the right approach,” said Troels Vester, the agency’s country manager for Burma. “There is a very close relationship between peace and illicit narcotics in Burma. On the one hand, conflict fuels illicit drugs, and on the other hand, illicit drugs fuels conflict. We do not believe it is possible to have major progress on one area without progress on the other.”

Most of the poppy crop in northern Burma is cultivated by impoverished ethnic groups that have no other way to make a living. For such communities, the opium is a lifeline — it helps them put food on the table and meet other basic needs like access to health care and education.

That’s why UNODC is working with the government in neighboring Shan state — also a huge opium-producing area — to provide farmers with an alternative source of income: coffee. According to Vester, more than 600 hectares of poppy fields have already been replaced with coffee, and he that figure to more than double by end of 2018.

For those who can’t manage the switch, the alternative is grim. Green rice paddy fields line a path out of Myitkyina that leads to a large concrete building called the Rebirth Rehab Center, run by a local Baptist church. The building is clean, and on the inside its walls are decorated with crosses and Bible verses. Initially, there’s little sign that it’s anything other than a well-run rehabilitation center — other than the fact that it’s walled off by high fences and barbed wire.

But behind the building is an ugly sight. A dark red timber hut is crowded with skinny men with blood-shot eyes. They’re locked in. One man is particularly conspicuous: His legs are chained to the floor as punishment for bad behavior, probably smoking. (Saw Aung, the center’s deputy director, told me this is a frequent punishment.)

Some have been locked inside the damp, mosquito-infested hut for days and even weeks — it’s where the staff put addicts during their withdrawal period. The men relieve themselves in the corner. “I’ve been here for three days and I can’t sleep,” said one man who didn’t want to be named. He has been using heroin for a year. “I’m fed up using drugs,” he said. “I want to be clean.”

The staff of the rehab center determine when the men are allowed to leave the “detox room” and move into dormitories, where their days are spent studying the Bible, cleaning, and learning life skills. They’re not allowed to leave until staff members say so. In desperation, some have dug holes under the surrounding fence and escaped. Unsurprisingly, drug experts express opposition to such forced “rehabilitation” methods, which, they say, provide no access to effective treatment services and show profound disrespect for human dignity.

But back in town, in the local tea shop, Gun is unconcerned about how his organization treats its drug-addicted prisoners. For him, its methods are worth it if they prevent overdoses. It’s a cause to which he’s willing to give his life. “This is more than a full-time job,” he said. “I think about it everywhere I go,” he said. “It’s better for me to die than the thousands of people who die [of heroin] every year.”

In the photo, a drug user injects heroin on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, Burma, in May 2015.

Photo credit: BRENDAN O’CONNOR