Myanmar's northern Kachin State, renowned for its heroin production, is changing tack in its efforts to curb rampant drug use and cultivation: In addition to crop-substitution programmes, community-led campaigns aim to change minds and steer people towards treatment.
“The drug problem here is so big that we can’t rely only on the authorities to solve it. So communities have risen up to contain it,” Tang Gun, secretary of the Kachin National Anti-Drug Committee, told IRIN.
Fresh community-driven efforts to reduce drug cultivation and use are being attempted in the wake of failed top-down efforts said Tang Gun, adding: “Illicit drugs have been wasting a lot of our people, young and old.”
In its 2013 Southeast Asia Opium Survey, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said opium cultivation in Myanmar had increased by 26 percent that year despite government efforts to curb production. Myanmar’s production was at its highest in 2013 - with an estimated 870 tons cultivated - since UNODC began gathering data in 2002.
Complicating matters is a low intensity armed conflict and more than 100,000 displaced people: Kachin State has seen renewed violence since the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between ethnic armed groups and government forces in 2011.
Poppy cultivation and drug production have been embroiled in ceasefire politics. Ethnic armed groups have earned money from the drugs trade, and some have participated in eradication campaigns. Still some groups accuse the government of capitalizing on the truces to exploit natural resources while neglecting development, effectively forcing farmers to continue to grow poppies. Research by the Transnational Institute (TNI), a Dutch think tank, explained that: "unlike other crops, traders are willing to travel to remote villages to buy the opium."
Heroin in Kachin State can cost as little as 1,000 kyat (US$1) per dose, and some research suggests injecting has become more popular than traditional opium-smoking among some of Kachin's tens of thousands of users, as it delivers a more cost-effective “high”.
Beginning in 1999, the government launched an ambitious 15-year drug eradication “master plan” that initially had success with an 83 percent drop in poppy cultivation in its first eight years.
Fifteen years later, however, Brig-Gen Kyaw Kyaw Tun, deputy minister of home affairs, told parliament in June 2013 the intervention had failed. According to UNODC analysis, insufficient alternative livelihoods, plus the fact that dry opium’s market value is 19 times more than rice per hectare, pushed many farmers back to poppies.
In response to the ongoing challenge of drug cultivation and use, community activists are leading the charge to educate the public, but they say the small number of treatment facilities is hampering their outreach work.
Large-scale efforts to discourage poppy cultivation in Myanmar have had mixed results over time. For example, Chinese-led opium cultivation substitution programmes in northern Myanmar, launched in 2006, have been criticized for further entrenching poverty in the area by establishing unsustainable single-crop industrial farming (often rubber plantations), and sometimes using Chinese migrant labour instead of local workers.
According to a 2012 report by TNI, “the main benefits of these [substitution] programmes do not go to (ex-) poppy growing communities, but to Chinese businessmen and local authorities.”
Beginning in April 2014, Tang Gun’s committee of faith-based groups has established grassroots networks in collaboration with community leaders in almost every township of Kachin State as well as in northern parts of Shan State, which borders Kachin to the south, in an effort to monitor drug sales and use in communities, and guide people towards treatment options.
“When we find drug users, we patiently explain to them the dangers of drug-use and why they should stop using it,” said Tang Gun, adding that a similar technique is used with known sellers.
“We also give the sellers a warning that we’ll inform the police if we see them selling drugs the next time,” he explained.
Bawn Ying, a resident of Myitkyina, Kachin State’s capital, told IRIN: “Drug-users complain they cannot find heroin easily these days because some sellers are getting afraid of community initiatives. This shows that community initiatives actually have impact on the ground.”
Gun Tang, a leader of Kutkai Anti-Drug Committee in northern Shan State, said that in the absence of effective government programmes, community-level outreach was having an impact even in its early months.
“Here, people at the grassroots level very much welcome our initiatives, and come and join our awareness-raising events as well,” Gun Tang said.
Naw Tawng, chairman of Tanaing Anti-Drug Committee in Tanaing Township, a notorious poppy cultivation area in Kachin State, said farmers are also feeling pressure as community awareness increases.
“As some farmers realize they will soon be pressured by their communities, they are giving it a second thought whether they should keep growing this crop or not.”
However, he argued, other viable options need to be presented in order to allow farmers to make good decisions.
“We need to encourage farmers to substitute poppy with other crops, by creating a good market for them,” Naw Tawng said, explaining that no crop-substitution programmes had been introduced in his area to date.
Limited treatment facilities
Despite this early spike in public awareness, activists fear the small number of treatment facilities could limit the impact of their outreach. “Some people show willingness to stop using heroin,” said Tang Gun, secretary of the Kachin National Anti-Drug Committee. “But the problem is there are not enough facilities or centres to give treatment to them.”
According to Tang Gun, Myitkyina has only two drug use rehabilitation centres, one state-run, and one run by the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a faith-based organization with extensive humanitarian and development operations in Kachin State and elsewhere in Myanmar.
“The KBC facility gives shelter and treatment. But it cannot accommodate more than 100 people,” he said. “There is one state-run facility in Myitkyina that gives treatment to those who want to stop drugs, but I don’t think its capacities and treatments are enough.”
According to Tang Gun, while community-driven awareness programmes are a positive step, “what we actually need is to establish enough facilities and centres to give treatment. So far, we haven’t seen the government initiatives yet to expand treatment facilities…
“If we can’t provide treatment, those who want to give up will fall back to their previous situation. Without accessible treatments or facilities, conducting campaigns will not be effective.”
Kachin State borders China and is home to more than 1.2 million people, including migrant workers who come to work in gold and jade mines.