Drugs and the Kachin

Small-scale poppy cultivation and use of opium for medicinal and recreational purposes had long been a tradition with rural Kachins, especially in remote border areas. Opium, considered good medicine for diarrhea and other stomach ailments, and easing the effects of malaria, was also the go-to medicine for treating sick farm and pack animals. Recreationally, opium was taken for the feelings of relaxation and euphoria it gives.

But by the mid 1970’s, a major shift in opium cultivation and drug use patterns had evolved in the Kachin area. Fuelled by an increasingly lucrative drug market, opium cultivation became more widespread and commercial. The processed form of opium, heroin or no. 4 as it is more commonly known, replaced raw, black opium as the preferred drug choice. Although more dangerous and addictive – especially if injected – heroin use became more prevalent as it was cheaper and easier to use. Opium or drug use, which had been the sole domain of adult males in rural areas, now began to ensnare more and more younger people from urban areas, including women and girls.

Heroin addiction, which first became rampant among miners in the jade mines of Hpakant, spread rapidly to other transient workers around the area, such as gold miners, loggers and sex workers. The drug problem was amplified by the practice of sharing needles by injection drug users (IDUs), which led to alarming levels of HIV/AIDS infections. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranks Kachin State as having the highest HIV rate among drug users in South East Asia. The AIDS epidemic has now reached such crisis levels that it is endangering even lower-risk groups like girls and women.

Drug use took an even more ominous turn when the last decade saw a boom in the production of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) like yaba/yama. Affordable and easily available, it became popular with students as well as migrant workers and field laborers who need to do heavy work or work all night. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of drug addicted Kachins – young and old, male and female, rural and urban.

The huge increase in drug use among the younger generation is of special concern. Local sources say about 70% of university students at Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, are addicted to some kind of drug or the other. The small town of Washawng, on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina, has an unusually large number of young IDUs, some as young as 14. This is not surprising given the fact that an estimated 20% of households in the village deal in drugs.

The ever-rising number of drug addicts and the subsequent HIV/AIDS epidemic, poses serious health threats to the Kachins. If not addressed effectively and in time, the Kachin, a minority ethnic group with an estimated population of just over 1.5 million in Burma, could soon become an “endangered species”. Thus the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has declared opium and related drugs to be the “principal and most destructive enemy” of the Kachin people.

A matter of great concern is the ease with which drugs are being flooded into Kachin towns and villages, especially in government controlled areas. These drugs targeting Kachin youth, are seen as a cold war weapon to wage “drug genocide” against Kachins.

Local sources in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, say river ports and boat stations are the main channels of drug entry and distribution in the town. Corrupt police and drug bureau officials, some of whom have been caught dealing themselves, usually turn a blind eye to all the drug trafficking, seemingly even to encourage it. Police confiscation of drugs is restricted to pure opium, allowing the more dangerous and addictive heroin, morphine or Ya-ma, to flood the market.

Locals complain that when they catch drug dealers and bring them in to the police station, they would inevitably be set free the next day. They say it is commonplace for police to find ways to harass, intimidate and even replace ward leaders whom they regard as anti-drug.

Furthermore, the government’s current opium substitution program is seen to be doing more harm than good for the local people. Under this program, out of state and foreign companies are allowed to come in and take possession of thousands of acres of farmland, depriving local farmers of land and livelihood.

These companies have cleared swathes of virgin forest land to grow lowland mono crops, and the subsequent use of high doses of strong chemicals are destroying the quality of the surrounding ecosystem. Chinese business companies are the worst offenders. They come in, ostensibly to take part in the opium substitution program, but instead engage in plundering timber and other natural resources. Some are even reputed to be involved in the drug trade.

As the drug problem intensifies, an aggressive anti-drug offensive is being spearheaded by the KIO, despite its on-going war with government forces. The KIO has decreed areas under its administration opium free zones, banning altogether cultivation, use, and trafficking of opium and heroin.

Kachin faith and civil society groups are following suit with anti-drug campaigns of their own. Drug education seminars to raise public awareness of the dangers of drug use have been conducted with assistance from international aid groups like Oxfam Novib. Such intervention activities have met with some success, but there is no doubt it continues to be an uphill battle.

At present, drug eradication efforts are being hampered by inadequate resources, limited access to media and international aid organizations, and the resumption of hostilities in the aftermath of the June 2011 Kachin war.

In spite of all the complexities and challenges involved, Kachins realize that drug abuse is a scourge that has the potential of wiping them out as a people, and that the fight against it is of utmost importance.

Accordingly, the following steps are seen as crucial to turn the tide in the war against drug addiction.

  • Instituting crop substitution programs that actually benefit local farmers, not out of state and foreign business enterprises.
  • Establishing adequate medical help and rehabilitation facilities for drug addicts and HIV/AIDS patients.
  • Introducing on a wider scale, detoxification programs, needle exchange programs to reduce needle sharing among IDUs, and counseling on safer drug use and sex practices.
  • Production of a wide variety of education materials targeting Kachin youth specifically, on the perils of drug use and HIV/AIDS.

Since the threat of an HIV/AIDS epidemic through drug abuse is not just specific to the Kachin area, but has wider implications, the government should consider becoming part of the solution rather than continue to be a major contributor to the problem.