Recovering drug addicts Tu Lum (left) and Mar Seng speak with ucanews.com at a drug rehabilitation center in Kachin state (Photos by Simon Lewis)
The boxy 16-bed clinic at Aung Myin Thar Model Village is large and modern looking by the standards of health facilities in rural Myanmar. But less than five years after about 400 families moved into this newly built settlement, the clinic’s sign is already missing a few letters.
“It looks good from the outside, but inside there’s not much,” said Joseph Naw Ja, who works for the Catholic diocese in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina tackling the areas chronic drug problem.
The families were relocated in March 2010 from the fertile area at the confluence of the Malikha and Maykha rivers, which combine to form the Ayeyarwady. It was an unwilling move, but their ancestral homes had been in the way of the US$3.8 billion Chinese-backed Myitsone dam.
The massive hydropower project was suspended by Myanmar President Thein Sein in 2011 in a move that marked a sea change in his country’s international relations — shunning Chinese investment in favor of reconciliation with the West. There’s a chance the project might be resumed following elections next year, but the public mood remains strongly in opposition.
Either way, there have been no indications that the villagers will be allowed to move back. For now, they find themselves in an area with few opportunities for work, and which local anti-drug campaigners say is riddled with drug addiction and drug trafficking — a disastrous combination.
“Many people come from [the town] Myitkyina to buy drugs in the next village. Everyone knows that’s where you buy drugs,” said Joseph, himself a former addict.
On the outskirts of the so-called model village lies a Catholic Church-supported drug rehabilitation center. Three bamboo huts house 59 drug addicts; a rustic effort by local people to tackle the scourge of opium, heroin and methamphetamine addiction.
Tu Lum, a nervous 21-year-old who was forced into rehab at the camp by his parents, said he became addicted to heroin shortly after the relocation. His family was given compensation, but they lost the productive land on which they used to grow crops.
“After the relocation, I went to work on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, panning for gold,” he told ucanews.com.
“We had to work through the rainy season, so our boss would give us opium to make us keep working in the conditions.”
“I tried to keep away from drugs, but I couldn’t help it, and I ended up moving on to heroin.”
In the camp, there is no methadone and no 12-step program — only the Bible, and ‘the bath’. Addicts take it in turns to douse themselves with cold water, providing short-term relief from the agony of withdrawal.
“You feel like you are burning. You can’t sleep,” said Tu Lum.
Another of those from the relocation village currently in recovery is Mar Seng, 28, who said he was getting clean because his addiction had ruined his relationship with his wife.
However, he said he was not sure what kind of work he could find in the area of the resettlement village.
“There are no opportunities here. Many people have gone away to work in the jade mines at Hpakant, or in gold mining areas,” he said. Rates of addiction — as well as HIV/AIDS — are reportedly extremely high in mining communities in Kachin state.
“Those are the only options really,” Mar Seng added.
A view of Aung Myin Thar Model Village, which houses 400 families relocated to make way for the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam (Photo by Simon Lewis)
Just four of those in the camp were among those resettled to make way for the dam, according to Myo Seng Naw from the local community's drug eradication committee, who is in charge of the rehabilitation camp. But many others in the so-called model village are involved in the drug trade, either as users or dealers, he said.
“Almost every family in the village deals drugs or has a member who uses drugs,” he said.
As well as running the camp, the drug eradication committee collects intelligence on drug dealing, and launches vigilante raids against traffickers moving through the area. But Myo Seng Naw said a local police colonel is often a hindrance to their efforts.
“He has put pressure on us not to eradicate the drugs,” he said, adding that he suspected local officials made money from the narcotics trade. “He warns the dealers when we tell him we will do something.”
Allegations of inaction by the authorities in relation to Kachin’s drug problem are common. Church and community-based organizations claim to be making headway in the fight, but say they have little support from the government.
Religious leaders estimate that more than 50 percent of local youth are drug addicts, and many leaders believe that allowing the drug trade to flourish is part of a government plot to undermine the Kachin ethnic group.
A report by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand published in October said that since fighting resumed between ethnic Kachin rebels and government forces in 2011, the authorities have allowed pro-government militias to grow opium, produce heroin and manufacture methamphetamine in parts of Kachin and Shan states.
“Due to the government’s lack of political will to crack down on the drug problem, and widespread corruption, there is no strict law enforcement against drug dealing. Only small-time dealers and users are arrested,” the report said.
“There is a good deal between the dealers and the police around here,” said a mother of three young children living a short drive from Aung Myin Thar village, who asked not to be named. She said that addicts regularly congregate at the back of a local convenience store, and are never troubled by the authorities.
“For my children I pray that the drug eradication efforts will work,” she said, “but I will send them to other areas when they are older.”
Daw Tung Roi (right) sits at her home in Aung Myin Thar Model Village (Photo by Simon Lewis)
Many in Aung Myin Thar village itself wish to return to their former home.
“Our land has already been prepared for the dam building. But if we were allowed, we would go back, even though our house is not there anymore,” said Daw Tung Roi, the 48-year-old matriarch of a family of nine that was resettled.
The family received about $5,000 in compensation, and still get the odd sack of rice from China Power Investment, the Chinese state-owned company behind the dam project. But Daw Tung Roi said the money ran out quickly as the family has had very little income.
“It’s true there’s no work around here,” she said, cursing the stony, unproductive ground at her new home.
“We’ve heard about drug problems in recent years. I don’t know much about it…. But, I suppose most of the parents here don’t really know what their kids get up to.”