MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Tang Raw recalls the “nightmare” of his days as a heroin addict in Hpakant, a wild and inhospitable land in Kachin State where the world’s best jade is mined.
“I was addicted to heroin for more than 10 years. I started to use the drug when I was 15. I only managed to stop when I was 30 years old,” said Tang Raw, a 39-year-old ethnic Kachin man who also used to work in the sprawling jade mines that pock the landscape in Hpakant.
Born into a wealthy jade merchant family, Tang Raw said his father was popular and well-known among residents in Myitkyina due to his wealth. But the toll of drug addiction was heavy—both financially and socially—for the family.
“My father was a rich jade merchant in the past. We had a big house,” said Tang Raw. “But we now have to live in an old, small house. Me and my four brothers were drug addicts in our home. So, the faces of our parents were often full of tears.
“They [his parents] even lost their good clothes, which we stole and sold to buy heroin. My sisters were very shy because we were drug users. We sold their clothes to others to buy heroin. At that time, heroin was in our blood, so we didn’t care,” he added.
Tang Raw, who mined jade in the village of Sai Taung in Hpakant Township, said the deaths of his four older brothers was the impetus for his kicking of the heroin habit. When they died, he was left with nothing, forced to live on the street and scrounge for food that he often could not afford.
From those darkest of times, Tang Raw today runs a drug rehabilitation center, the Christian Youth Reform Ministry, in Myitkyina, where he organizes anti-drug activities, counsels fellow former drug addicts, and encourages and those seeking to leave narcotics behind.
Tang Raw, who got married four years after he quit using, has offered counseling to more than 50 drug addicts since opening the center in 2010. Christian teachings form the core of the center’s program. Religious songs are sung, Bible passages are read out, and worship services are held at the drug rehabilitation center.
Tang Raw said that he tried unsuccessfully to quit drugs at least 30 times before his deteriorating health helped push him to change his ways.
“At that time, I was so skinny. I was skin and bones. One day, I was unexpectedly thinking about the day that I die. I was very nervous. At that time, Bible teachings came into my mind,” said the Christian man.
“And I remembered my drug-addicted friends who escaped from this nightmare and were enjoying happy lives. When these thoughts came into my mind, I decided to go back to Myitkyina and visit my relatives who work at a church there,” Tang Raw said.
‘It’s Like a Cold War’
As well as fueling a lucrative regional drug trade, heroin, opium and methamphetamine, popularly known as ya-ba, are a major social blight on communities in towns like Myitkyina, Bhamo and Hpakant.
Brang Chyoi, a student at Myitkyina University, said drug usage is increasingly common among students.
“I think 50 out of every 100 university students here use drugs. They usually use heroin. They inject heroin behind bushes or anywhere that people can’t see them. The drug has an impact not only on education, but also on our [ethnic identity],” said Brang Chyoi.
Residents in Myitkyina and Hpakant say there is little or no effective legal action taken against narcotics peddlers and users, despite widespread drug usage in Kachin State. Local authorities and police are accused of ignoring the drug problem, and some are even accused of being involved in the trade themselves.
The more conspiratorially minded say authorities are deliberately ignoring the drug problem among Kachin youth, with the intention of passively creating a drug-dependent, poorly educated and politically impotent generation of the ethnic minority group.
“It is like a cold war,” said Lama Yaw, director of the Kachin Baptist Convention’s communication department in Myitkyina. “The drug trade targets the youth. It mainly targets universities. They [students] can get it very easily.”
“It is like a very systemic project. When I’ve seen people selling drugs, I’ve asked police officials why they don’t arrest the people selling the drugs, and they replied that they don’t have the authority to arrest drug sellers,” said Lama Yaw, who also works on anti-drug campaigns.
In Sai Taung, the village where Tang Raw once mined jade, the existence of an “injection center” where heroin can be readily purchased is the town’s open secret.
The Kachin Baptist Convention is working to combat the scourge through anti-drug campaigning that includes holding public briefings, and producing DVDs about drug education and awareness.
Locals say the drugs come from the Sino-Burmese border. However, much of it is also produced domestically, trafficked in from Shan State in eastern Burma, where ethnic Wa rebels from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) run drug laboratories.
Burma is Southeast Asia’s largest opium poppy-growing country, and the world’s second largest after Afghanistan. A report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) last month stated that opium poppy cultivation in Burma rose for the sixth consecutive year, despite an increase in government efforts to eradicate the plant.
“The significant increase in opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar coupled with significant increases in trafficking in methamphetamines and other illicit drugs reflect a growing human security threat to the region,” the UNODC’s East Asia and the Pacific regional representative, Gary Lewis, said in the report.
Anti-drug campaigners say there are plenty of poppy plantations along the hills on the route between Kampati Township and the Pangwang region of southeastern Kachin State, an area controlled by the government-affiliated Kachin militia known as New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDAK). The NDAK, led by Zahkung Ting Ying, became part of the government’s Border Guard Force in 2009.
La John Ngan Hsai, the chief minister of Kachin State, said drug use commonly leads to problems at home.
“If there is a drug addict in one house, family members start to suffer daily problems. They can’t live in peace. There are frequent arguments and fighting,” La John Ngan Hsai told The Irrawaddy.
“And when there are more youths using drugs, it’s a bad sign for families, the state and even for the future of the country. So we are trying hard to prevent these problems, but we still have much to do,” he added.
“We have a saying: Black-haired people [young people] normally carry white-haired people [their elders] to the cemetery. But, now, white-haired people are having to carry black-haired people to the cemetery,” Lama Yaw said, referring to drug addicts’ typically shorter lifespans.