Vigilantism and Pat Jasan

There are those who condemn the vigilante tactics of Pat Jasan, the community-based Kachin drug abuse eradication network. The criticism would be justified, if under normal circumstances. But the times, they are not a-normal, to channel Bob Dylan. These are desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures. How desperate are the times? Let me count the ways:

An overwhelming number of Kachins – young and old, male and female, rural and urban – are drug addicted. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Kachin State has 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.

The Kachins therefore consider opium and related drugs to be their “principal and most destructive enemy”. They firmly believe that if not addressed effectively and in time, the Kachin, a minority ethnic group in Burma with an estimated population of just over 1.5 million, could soon become an “endangered species”.

Furthermore, the ease with which drugs are being flooded into Kachin towns and villages, especially targeting Kachin youth, gives rise to the widespread perception that a covert drug genocide is being waged against the Kachin.

Ethnic armed groups willing to convert to border guard forces are given free rein to operate massive poppy cultivation and drug trafficking in their areas. Kachin State Special Region No. 1, encompassing the Pangwa, Kanbaiti area on the borderlands with China, fits this description perfectly.

Special Region No.1 is the fiefdom of notorious drug lord Zahkung Ting Ying, leader of New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) turned border guard force. He was reelected to the Upper House in November after banning the NLD from campaigning in his territory. And it is this region, with its thousands of acres of poppy fields, that the Pat Jasan has targeted for its poppy clearing mission.

It is no secret that the drug trade is being aided and abetted by corrupt officials of all stripes and colors, with astounding amounts in bribes and kickbacks going into their coffers. The accounts ledger of a known drug dealer seized by Pat Jasan, shows a listing of ten million Kyats going to local authorities as part of its daily expenditure. This was in Hpakant, the jade township in Kachin State where drug addiction is most rampant, and it prompted Hpakant’s newly elected MP, U Tint Soe, to cite the figure when arguing in support of the proposal to back community-based drug abuse eradication efforts in Parliament.

The government did institute opium substitution programs with UN assistance, but they were seen as primarily benefiting out of state government cronies and foreign companies who came in and took possession of thousands of acres of farmland, depriving local farmers of land and livelihood. Chinese companies especially, are notorious for plundering Kachin State’s timber and other natural resources, while engaging in the drug trade on the side.

Kachin faith and civil society groups had for years been engaged in anti-drug abuse campaigns with assistance from international aid groups. Their efforts were mainly in the form of drug education seminars and information handouts to raise public awareness of the dangers of drug abuse. But such intervention techniques had been met with only marginal success. The worsening of the drug abuse problem, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 Kachin war, has given rise to the conviction that a more aggressive campaign, targeting the problem at its source – poppy cultivation and trafficking – needs to be waged.

The Pat Jasan (Prohibit Clear), it is true, is the brainchild of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), but it has evolved into a network of Kachins from all walks of life, passionate about tackling the drug abuse problem. The KBC and Catholic Church leaders now lead the campaign shoulder to shoulder. Aware of the undesirable early excesses of Pat Jasan, they are now committed to running a more disciplined, compassionate campaign.

Thus far, Pat Jasan campaigners, although allowed to continue after the tense weeklong standoff with security forces at the Chipwi-Sadung Junction, have been violently attacked with guns and grenades by border guard militias and their poppy grower allies. The police security detail that accompanied them was helpless to protect them. As a result, scores of Pat Jasan members were injured, some seriously. This was in addition to the teenager shot and killed, and others injured by poppy growers in northern Shan State.

Assessing Pat Jasan gains at this juncture, regardless of whether their poppy eradication efforts can continue or not, the campaign’s ability to expose long held suspicions that government itself is the major contributor to the drug abuse problem – from pervasive official corruption, to the impunity with which border guard drug lords and their Chinese compatriots have been allowed to engage in the drug trade – is no small feat.

An encouraging development on another front is the fact that the drug abuse problem has caught the attention of incoming lawmakers this early on. Also, that the “urgent” proposal to support the Pat Jasan campaign (although not mentioned as such, but the reference is clear) received an overwhelming vote of confidence in Parliament is certainly noteworthy.