Burma Opium Fight Failing; Soldiers Shooting Up

By Esther Htusan 17 March 2014

NAMPATKA, Burma — Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard in this northeastern Burma village to get high. When authorities show up, it’s for their own quick fix: Soldiers and police roll up the sleeves of their dark green uniforms, seemingly oblivious to passers-by.

Nearby, junkies lean on white tombstones, tossing dirty needles and syringes into the dry, golden grass. Others squat on the ground, sucking from crude pipes fashioned from plastic water bottles.

Together with other opium-growing regions of Burma, the village of Nampakta has seen an astonishing breakdown of law and order since generals from the former military-run country handed power to a nominally civilian government three years ago.

The drug trade—and addiction—is running wild along the jagged frontier. In this village, roughly half the population uses.

“It’s all in the open now,” Daw Li said at the cemetery, wiping tears from her cheeks. As she stood before the graves of her two oldest sons, both victims of heroin overdoses, she could see addicts using drugs.

“Everyone used to hide in their houses. They’d be secretive,” the 58-year-old widow said. “Now the dealers deal, the junkies shoot up. They couldn’t care less if someone is watching.

“Why isn’t anyone trying to stop this?”

Burma was the world’s biggest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003. The government spent millions on poppy eradication, and drug syndicates began focusing more on the manufacturing methamphetamines. But within just a few years, poppy production started picking up.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the country produced 870 tons of opium last year, a 26 percent increase over 2012 and the highest figure recorded in a decade. During the same period, drug eradication efforts plunged. President Thein Sein’s spokesman, Ye Htut, indicated the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control the vast majority of the poppy-growing territory.

Nearly a dozen ceasefire agreements have been signed with various groups, but several insurgencies, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, continue to hold out. If Thein Sein goes after the rebels’ main source of income, the drug trade, he risks alienating them at a delicate time.

But many opium-growing towns and villages, including Nampakta, are under government control. Here, authorities are in a position to crack down but have chosen not to.

“When I first assumed this post, I said to my bosses, ‘We need to take action to stop drugs,’” said a senior official in Nampatka who spoke to The Associated Press on condition he not be named because he feared retribution.

“I was told, quite flatly, ‘Mind your own business.’”

He said every family in the village is now affected: “Half the population of 8,000 uses. It’s not just opium or heroin anymore, but methamphetamines.”

Ye Htut said methamphetamines are currently a bigger problem for Burma than opium, with the precursor chemicals flooding into the country from neighboring India, but that several recent drug busts show the government is taking law enforcement seriously. Those seizures focused primarily on meth, including the reported seizure of 1 million tablets in Rangoon this month.

Though the government eradicated only about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of opium poppies last year, barely half the total of 2012, Ye Htut said he is hopeful future poppy eradication efforts—this time with the help of the United States—will be more successful. He said sanctions imposed on the country when it was under military rule made it difficult to finance crop alternatives for poor poppy-growing farmers.

The No. 123 Infantry army base and several police posts overlook waves of white and pink poppies in full bloom on both sides of the dusty road leading to Nampakta, blanketing the sloping valleys and jagged peaks as far as the eye can see.

Farmers living in wooden huts dotting the landscape say the crops are patrolled by government-aligned civil militias known as Pyi Thu Sit, which hold sway over many parts of Shan and Kachin states, the country’s biggest producers of opium.

Jason Eligh, country manager of the UNODC, said pretty much anyone with a gun has a role to play.

The militias force farmers to grow poppies, lend them money for seeds, protect fields from being eradicated and ensure that buyers collect the opium and get it to market, collecting fees every step of the way.

Soldiers and police, in exchange for turning a blind eye, get a piece of the cut, the official in Nampakta said.

Dealers hanging out at the graveyard, on street corners and behind hillside homes pay security forces to leave them alone, he said, adding that some soldiers and police prefer to receive drugs as payment.

Police work is how Naw San, a former narcotics officer, says he became a drug addict.

“Whenever we were trying to get to the drug dealers, we had to pretend we were drug addicts to make sure they didn’t recognize us as police,” the 32-year-old said from The Light of the World Rehabilitation Center, a Baptist facility where he had checked in three days earlier with his wife, also an addict, and their 2-year-old daughter.

The girl, Tsaw Tsaw, is happy, easygoing and possibly unaware that both her parents are so weak they can’t even hold her. A volunteer at the center helps care for the child.

Naw San said he is trying to overcome his addiction for her daughter’s sake and that of his parents, who had once hoped he would go to theological school.

“My younger brother died already because of drugs and my other brother barely seems human anymore. I am the only one left for my mother to give her hope,” he said. “I hope I will go forward with God and I will serve him. I pray for that.”

Many residents say they are sick of seeing their community ripped apart by drugs, though growing opium is one of the few ways people can make money in impoverished rural areas such as Nampakta. More than a billion dollars in development aid has poured into Burma, but it has been spent mainly in urban centers and other more accessible areas. Now some residents in opium country would prefer to see the crops destroyed.

Daw Li, the woman who lost two sons to drugs, one 32 and the other 28, worries that it’s only a matter of time before her youngest, now 25, follows them to the grave.

“I expected my children to be great,” she cried.

She said her boys started doing drugs after graduating from high school, but she had no idea at first. They hid it well. But then money started disappearing, and after that, household items such as blankets and dishes that she presumes they sold to buy drugs. Later she hid in neighbors’ homes, worried that her sons might attack her if she refused to give them money.

“There is nothing I can say except that it makes me so sad, and angry,” she says. “At the drug dealers, at their friends, at myself, but also, of course, at authorities who aren’t doing a thing to stop it.

“Now whenever I see young addicts on the streets, all I can say is, ‘Please, don’t use drugs anymore. Look at me, an old lady who lost two sons. Your parents will also feel so sad, just like me.’”

The message is lost on those who loiter in the graveyard in the center of the village, the most popular hangout for addicts. The village tallies deaths almost every week. Days before an Associated Press team visited the area, four men between 18 and 45 died of drug overdoses.

The body of the youngest was found in the graveyard, draped over a tombstone.