MOUNG PAW, Shan State —Esther is now 65, thin, and with wrinkles visible around her eyes. But when it comes to fighting drug abuse or treating patients in the conflict zone, theretired nurse has a reputation for being fearless.
The ethnic Kachin woman has worked in healthcare her whole life. Even 15 years after retiring from nursing, she still delivers babies for free for poor mothers in the sub-township of Moung Paw, which lies between Muse and Pang Sai in northern Shan State. The community is largely Kachin, with Shan and Chinese populations in the area as well.
Moung Paw is a “brown zone”—a term used to refer to contested territory where both ethnic opposition and government forces operate. It is adjacent to Mong Ko, which experienced fierce clashes in late November and early December between government troops and the Northern Alliance, a coalition formed Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and Arakan Army (AA).
Esther and other volunteers worked together during period of intensified conflict to send the injured to Muse People’s Hospital. They also distributed foodstuffs to displaced persons in the aftermath of the fighting.
Moung Paw has a small hospital but it is ill equipped and has no doctor who can perform operations, Esther explained.
“The health staff [of the hospital] fled when the clashes happened,” she said. “I witnessed three deaths and dozens of injuries, on both civilians and the soldiers, in villages in our sub-township.”
On Nov. 20, an artillery shell fell near a house in a displaced people’scamp Meng Phan village in Moung Paw, killing a child and injuring another four-year-old, the mother and the grandfather, Esther said.
Fighting Drug Abuse
It was in 2012 when Esther said she felt the need to act to address the worsening drug abuse in her area. Nearly every man, from the elderly to teenagers, used drugs—mostly methamphetamines—to the point that they were unable to work. In turn, this forced daughters, wives and mothers to seek out extra employment in order to survive and to pay for the drugs required by their male relatives.
Esther, with other like-minded women, formed a group to start addressing the problem. They named it Hkaw Sha Hpung, a Kachin phrase meaning “heartfelt emotion,” drawn from their strong feelings for their family members suffering from drug addiction.
Soon, women from the surrounding 21 villages in Moung Paw joined the group, which today boasts more than 300 active members, out of a total area population of 2,000.
After a lack of response from the authorities, Esther said that the group had to take the problem of drug abuse into their own hands.
“We have to do this, because police don’t do their job,” said Esther.
Working with the assistance of doctors from Muse Hospital, the women in Hkaw Sha Hpungare known to deal strictly with drug-addicted community members in their quest to help them get clean. The group hasits own cells and shackles, for when they are required to detain individuals. Members guard the cells in shifts and cook meals for detainees. But the families of the detainees have to provide rice and cooking oil or money with which these supplies can be bought.
Detention is the initial step in the intervention, as the person in question is going through withdrawal. If he uses again, Hkaw Sha Hpung detains him once more. If he is caught using for a third time, the women expel him from the area.
Mother of three Esther is so firmly committed to fighting drug abuse that she even expelled her own drug addicted husband from the town.
Going After Dealers
Hkaw Sha Hpung does not only take action against drug addicts, but also against dealers.
When the group plans to apprehend a known drug dealer in a particular village, they secretly inform group members who are also residents in the village. They then make the arrest before dawn, and sometimes have to sleep in the forest, Esther explained.
Local militia groups also help them in raids on drug dealers for fear that they might have guns. But Esther said that they have never experienced violent resistance.
“In some cases, militiamen themselves are involved in drug dealings, but not the militia leaders,” she said.
After “arresting” the drug dealers, the women hand them over to the police.
Esther has faced threats from both drug addicts and drug dealers because of her anti-drug efforts, but says that she has now grown used to these responses and dangers.
“I took a lead role in fighting against drugs. Therefore, both drug dealers and users have always threatened me. The worst threat I have ever received was when someone hung a bomb on the front fence of my house,” she recounted.
Esther said that she feels her campaign has achieved a certain level of progress and success thus far, but added that the recent clashes between the Burma Army and the Northern Alliance have created instability in the Moung Paw region and halted the functions of her group.
She lamented the under development of Moung Paw in all aspects, pointing to a weak rule of law, the closure of schools due to clashes, and the fleeing of local hospital staff because of the armed conflict.
“I’ve grown up and grown old amid gunfire,” said Esther. “I’m concerned that the drug problem will only grow bigger unless and until peace prevails.”
Translated from Burmese by ThetKoKo.