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Myanmar's 'refugees of the mind'

Ethnic people forced to flee rampant drug abuse and deprivation

Myanmar's 'refugees of the mind'

Ethnic Lisu people sing hymns at the Immanuel Baptist Church in downtown Yangon. correspondent, Yangon

April 8, 2014

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The nondescript road in Yangon’s Tamwe township is deserted. The hot-season sun has sent the residents inside their run-down tenement blocks, typical in this neglected city, which is Myanmar’s largest.

From one of the sets of barred windows, a hymn pours out, filling the street with impassioned singing.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and a congregation of less than 20 Lisu people, an ethnic group from northern Burma, have gathered in the apartment of Pastor Johan Ahphu.

The singing is backed by a portable keyboard and an acoustic guitar. "He’s OK now," says Pastor Johan, pointing over at his nephew Ye Sa, 23, the guitarist.

The young man is one of two nephews now living with the pastor in the relative sanctuary of Yangon. But it is not the civil war in their home state, which has displaced more than 100,000 civilians since a ceasefire broke down in 2011, that these young men are fleeing.

"If they stayed in Myitkyina, they will be doing drugs and alcohol," he said, referring to the Kachin state capital that serves as the Burmese army's staging post for its war with the Kachin Independence Army, from whom the Lisu have mostly become disunited. "Their grandmother sent them here. Now they study music."

Ye Sa and the other nephew, Mo Si Phu, 17, who plays the drums, are quiet and retiring here in Yangon, but fell into a familiar pattern of drug taking in their hometown.

"There aren't so many drugs here. They study and they are happier," Pastor Johan says.

Every week, the pastor preaches to this small group of mostly young Lisu who have come to get away from the problems back home, hoping to find economic opportunity. But most Lisu are not lucky enough to have relatives or connections elsewhere, he says, and as a result most are missing out on an optimistic time for Myanmar, where the economy is beginning to grow and freedoms are expanding after years of isolation.

"I'm praying for the young people not to do the bad things and for the leaders to solve the problems," he said, referring to ongoing ceasefire talks that he hopes will lead the way to peace.

The Lisu live mainly in the far northern town of Putao, Myitkyina and in parts of northern Shan state. Religious leaders in the mostly Baptist Lisu community fear that the ubiquity of drugs in those areas is threatening to lay waste to a generation of young people.

The Lisu are a hill tribe of more than 1 million people in total, inhabiting northeast India, northern Myanmar and southwestern China. As many as 500,000 Lisu live in Myanmar, according to community leaders. Less than 1,000 are estimated to live in Yangon, and many others have made their way to Thailand or farther afield for work, like so many others marginalized by Myanmar’s civil war and military dictatorships.

"They are not refugees of the battle, but refugees of the mind. They are running from the economic crisis and the political crisis," said Ah Dee Che, a pastor the Bethlehem Lisu Church in Myitkina, who recently visited Yangon.

For many of those who don't get away, drugs provide some kind of succor. Ah Dee Che estimated that about a third of young Lisu people were taking drugs - mostly opium in the countryside; heroin and methamphetamine in the cities.

“Yaba is popular now,” he said, using the local name for methamphetamine. “They start as young as 12.”

A report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in November said that heroin and opium, production of which is rising in Myanmar, remain the most prevalent drugs used in the country.

But the government’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control reports that “methamphetamine use in the country has increased annually since 2005,” the UN agency said.

“No official data is available on the number of drug users in Myanmar. However, the CCDAC estimates that there are between 300,000 to 400,000 drug users in the country,” the report said.

Region-specific data on drug use is not available, but the UN report cited a 2011 World Health Organization study saying that methamphetamine was now the most widely used drug among high school students in Myitkyina. Only 1.5 percent of students in the study reported having used methamphetamines. Anecdotally, the prevalence of drug use is much higher.

And many believe that wide availability of drugs, a lack of solutions from the government and poor law enforcement indicate an effort to undermine ethnic minority groups in an area that has been a bane to a government trying to becalm its troubled border regions.

“I think the main reason is because of politics. There is government neglect in Kachin state,” said Ah Dee Che.

“When they [the Myanmar government] speak, it's good. But I don’t know about in their hearts. Here in Yangon, you don’t see [drug use]. But in the rural areas, like Kachin and Shan states, it’s everywhere. We can’t prove it, but we can see it is happening.”

Esther, who works on youth issues for the nongovernmental organization Kachin Peace Network, said drug use was rife among the youth from all ethnic groups in Kachin state.

“It’s getting more and more. Five years ago, most young people were not using. The age of starting to use had got younger and younger,” she said, explaining that youths openly use drugs in the towns of Kachin state. “The students do it in the university compound.”

Esther also said she believed the government’s failure to tackle the problem in an area of political resistance was no coincidence.

“It has been so many years that this problem happens in Kachin state. The government never takes concrete action. They never pay attention to the issue. Not taking action shows a kind of intention,” she said. “Why are they not taking action? If it was in Yangon or Mandalay, it would be different.”

But, she noted, those among the youth who manage to avoid drugs are nonetheless becoming increasingly politicized by ongoing conflict.

“Before the war [that began in 2011], the young people were into drugs and not politics. Since the war, a few have started getting more interested in politics,” she said, adding: “The ones not on drugs.”

Esther said the Baptist churches across Kachin state were not able to give the support that authorities should be providing.

“There’s a lack of programs,” she said. “At the moment, for the church, they can’t work much actually. But they guide spiritually.”

Lisu Pastor Soe Thein, who every Sunday delivers sermons to some Lisu in Yangon at the grand Immanuel Baptist Church in downtown Yangon, insisted the church does what it can to help the youth.

Churches try to educate the younger members of the flock in the hope of guiding them away from drugs, he said. But once they are addicted, most stop coming to church, putting them out of the reach of religious leaders.

"They separate themselves from the church," he says. "We are trying to drag them into the church, but they don’t come. That’s the problem."

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