In Kachin State two battles are raging. While a bloody war with government troops continues, widespread drug addiction is proving just as destructive
By Carlos Sardiña Galache Photography by Antolin Avezuela Aristu
Thirteen men lie under blankets in a cramped room during the cold winter in Mai Ja Yang, a small town in Kachin State, northern Myanmar. They are locked inside every night, have to share a single bathroom and are not allowed to leave the compound for at least six months. They look tired and weary, and have little to do but wait for the time to pass.
These men are some of the 31 inmates held in this centre – a jail in all but name. They are here because they are drug addicts and were thus interned to undergo rehabilitation by the group that controls this territory that runs along the Chinese border: the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).
The rugged and mountainous forests of Kachin State have been ravaged by conflict since June 2011, when hostilities between the Myanmar Army and the autonomist Kachin Independence Army (KIA, the armed wing of the KIO) flared up after a tense ceasefire that had lasted for 17 years.
But the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Army is also known, is not the only enemy that the Kachin are fighting. In places such as the rehabilitation centre of Mai Ja Yang, they are waging a war against another, faceless foe: drug addiction. And many Kachin are inclined to believe that both wars are more closely linked than appearances would suggest.
Drugs are not difficult to come by in Myanmar: The country is the second largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan. According to the annual report issued last year by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in 2012 there were 51,000 hectares of opium poppy plantations in Myanmar, most of them in Shan State, the southern neighbour of Kachin State. Shan State is also the biggest source of methamphetamine in Southeast Asia.
Many of these narcotics easily make their way into both the government- and KIA-controlled areas of Kachin State, and the extensive use of heroin and methamphetamine among its youth threatens to destroy its social fabric.
To combat the use of drugs, the KIO established the Drug Eradication Committee four years ago. Its secretary, Phawdaw Gam Ba, is a sturdy, 47-year-old man who has been a member of the KIO since 1988 and who also runs a rehabilitation centre in Laiza, the town where the KIO/KIA headquarters are located.
Gam Ba says that his centre has treated 1,700 addicts since it opened in 2010. He believes that, in most cases, the treatment dispensed by the KIO is successful and he claims that the majority of those treated have beaten their addiction for good. He claims that only 50 people have been readmitted. “But many people go to government-controlled areas after leaving here, and then we cannot keep track of them,” he admits.
The main weapon employed in combatting addiction in these rehabilitation centres is religion. The Kachin are predominantly Christian (mostly Baptists, but there are also Catholics), and the drug users are encouraged to embrace faith in order to be saved from their addiction. They are directed to heal through sermons, Bible studies and song. They are also put to work in the local town and taught how to farm.
However, there are virtually no palliatives to alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and corporal punishment is sometimes used if the addicts fail to follow orders.
The conditions in these centres are harsh, yet some internees have been sent by their families or have been admitted of their own accord. Such is the case for Tung Ah Di, a 36-year-old heroin addict from Loi Je village. After several unsuccessful attempts to quit on his own, he decided to check into the Mai Ja Yang centre after recognising that his relationship with his mother was being destroyed by his addiction.
However, most of the patients at these centres have been detained by the KIO and forcibly held. One such patient is Muihpu Ma Bung, a 48-year-old woman who was sent to the Mai Ja Yang rehabilitation centre after she was discovered buying drugs in Loi Je village – one of the main hubs of drug distribution in the area. Ma Bung’s case also exemplifies how meaningless state borders can be in this region: Although she is an ethnic Kachin, lives in China and is a Chinese citizen, the KIO paid no notice and has kept her in Myanmar for six months. “She is poor and the authorities in China would not care about her,” says a staff member at the centre.
There are also rehabilitation centres run independently of the government (though in government-controlled areas) by the Kachin people themselves, specifically by the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). One of them is named The Light of the World and is located on the outskirts of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. In contrast to the KIO-controlled centres, treatment here is voluntary, lasts no more than three months and patients are not kept behind bars. At The Light of the World, those admitted study religion and the Kachin language – a subject neglected in Myanmar schools. They also hold long and cathartic singing sessions.
The reasons people begin to take drugs in Kachin State are myriad. Gam Ba places the blame on “unemployment and a lack of opportunities”. And just like addicts from elsewhere, most of the users in Kachin State blame “friends” for getting them into the scene. One of the few exceptions among those interviewed by Southeast Asia Globe is Tamu Hgung, a 30-year-old farmer and father of four undergoing treatment at The Light of the World.
“I started to take drugs in 1998 when I was working in the jade mines of Hpakant. In the beginning they gave me heroin to endure the hard work and then they started to pay me with heroin instead of money,” he says.
Back in KIO-controlled territory, Gam Ba claims that the number of addicts there has decreased, but admits there are some addicts among the KIA soldiers themselves. A case in point is Maran Naw Seng. The 38-year-old farmer and father of four was a member of the People’s Army – a village militia fighting under the command of the KIA – when the war began in 2011.
“I started to use heroin in 2013 when I was on the frontline. I used it as a medicine, because my legs started to swell due to the humidity in the trenches,” Naw Seng recalls. “I could not get medicine for my pain, so I got heroin from friends at first and then I started to cross into China to get it for myself.” In February, Naw Seng’s commander discovered him using drugs and sent him to the rehab centre in Laiza.
Like many Kachin, Gam Ba believes the drug scourge in his community is part of a conspiracy carried out by the Myanmar government to weaken, and ultimately defeat, the Kachin. “Some people from the government even distribute the drugs themselves and then jail the Kachin addicts. This is part of their strategy to divide and rule,” Gam Ba says.
Such claims are difficult to verify, but they seem to have had an effect on the Kachin. By linking its war on drugs to the nationalist struggle, the KIO has managed to reinforce its stance on both. Apart from dealing with drug users, the KIO is also waging a war on drug producers. When an opium poppy field is discovered in their territory, soldiers destroy the harvest and attempt to persuade the owners to plant different crops. If a farmer is discovered planting poppies again, he is sent to jail.
The KIO’s war on drugs may even prove harder to win than its battle against the Myanmar Army. Both are dirty wars. And while the conditions in the rehabilitation centres are far from ideal, they are a more humane approach to tackling the problem than some measures that have been employed in the past.
Gam Ba recognises that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the KIA was known to execute drug addicts on the spot. “There were executions in the Hpakant area, where there were so many drug addicts that we couldn’t control the problem. They used to steal, so the local population asked the KIO to control the area. The KIO took some extreme measures in answering the demands of the people,” he says. “But the Kachin Independence leadership changed shortly after, and there have been no more executions since.”
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