Magazine article New Internationalist

For Their Own Good

Magazine article New Internationalist

For Their Own Good

Article excerpt

Electric-green paddy fields and dark-brown thatched huts line the unpaved, pot-holed road to the outskirts of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin, Burma's northernmost state.

The high fences and barbed wire outside the sprawling block of land where the red tuk tuk stops are in stark contrast to the cows in the neighbouring fields and the children playing in the monsoon rain.

A large cross and biblical sayings decorate the interior of the Rebirth Rehab Centre - a Baptist-run rehabilitation centre for drug addicts - which appears at first glance to be a well-run, clean institution.

But behind the shared dormitories and mess hall is a dark mosquito-infested hut crammed with about a dozen skinny men with bloodshot eyes experiencing heroin withdrawal. They lie shirtless on the timber floor, trying to find some respite from the damp, humid air.

One man in particular sticks out. His legs are chained to the floor: punishment for smoking at the centre, which is banned.

After addicts are brought here by family members or anti-drug vigilantes, they are locked in the 'detox room' for days or even weeks, depending on the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. They have to relieve themselves in the corner and are not allowed out until staff decide they are ready.

'I've been here for three days and I can't sleep. There are too many mosquitos,' said a 35-year-old user who wished to remain anonymous because of the stigma around drug addiction in Burma. 'I'm fed up using drugs, I want to be clean.'

While the conditions are primitive compared to Western standards, for many it's their only option for survival.

Every family has one

Violence has plagued Kachin State, which borders China to the north and east, and Shan State to the south, since the country gained independence from the British in 1948.

The Kachin, a Christian ethnic group in a Buddhist-majority country, have been fighting the government for their right to self-rule. But, in 2011, after 17 years of peace between rebels and the government, the long-standing ceasefire collapsed and fighting resumed, displacing an estimated 100,000.

Burma is the second-largest opium producer in the world. In Kachin and Shan States, the easy availability of cheap, strong heroin has helped fuel an addiction crisis that is not only destroying communities and economic development, but bringing with it skyrocketing rates of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Evidence of addiction is everywhere in Myitkyina, a dusty town along the Ayeyarwaddy River, filled with cheap Chinese goods and jobless youths. used needles are strewn across the train tracks that go through the town, while signs hang in family-run restaurants pleading against drug use. A heroin hit costs just 60 US cents and children as young as 12 are users.

'Every family has a drug user. It affects everyone,' said Dr Tun Tun, the Myitkyina area co-ordinator for the Substance Abuse Research Association (SARA) - one of the few NGOs in the state that run harm-reduction programmes. 'People need to realize it's our problem, not the government's.'

Strong-arm tactics

In 1999, Burma launched a 15-year plan to stamp out poppy cultivation and, up to a decade ago, it looked like the nation was on track. But that deadline has been extended to 2019 following the tripling of poppy cultivation since 2006; it has reached almost 60,700 hectares, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (Whether Aung San Suu Kyi's freely elected new government - the first after more than half a century of repressive military rule - will aim for the 2019 target or not remains to be seen.)

Moreover, UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey in 2014 found that opium use had more than doubled and the use of heroin and methamphetamines more than tripled in poppy-growing areas of northern Burma between 2012 and 2014.

Tom Kramer, a researcher at the Transnational Institute who focuses on Burma's drug market, said ongoing conflict and poverty, and demand for opiates in the region, particularly from China, were important drivers of opium cultivation. …

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