By Brennan O’Connor 19 May 2015
LASHIO, Shan State — Fed up with the daily sight of drug users in their local neighborhood, Ah Zeng and other Kachin youth leaders decided to take matters into their own hands.
“At the time we didn’t have a good plan. We just didn’t like these drugs in our area,” said Ah Zeng, a resident of Block 5, a small neighborhood set on a mountain just north of Lashio in northern Shan State.
Ten Kachin youth leaders formed a small association last year called the White Group supported by the Kachin Baptist Church. They began educating other young people in their community on the dangers of using drugs. They also began night patrols aimed at warning drug dealers and users—who often came to the mountain from other areas of Lashio to use drugs—to move on.
Support for White Group has grown, attracting many young people in the community. They planned to open a drug rehabilitation center for users in the neighborhood very soon.
However, their work has not been without its setbacks.
One night last September, several youth and village leaders confronted a known local drug dealer after he was observed meeting an addict near his home. According to Ah Zeng, two village leaders struck him on the head and he ran away. He returned shortly afterwards with his father. When the suspected dealer attacked one of the village leaders with a stick, the youth group retaliated. One member broke the man’s jaw.
Two weeks later, 10 members of the group found themselves in court, where they were ordered to pay 4 million kyat (about US$3,900) to the suspected dealer’s father in order to avoid prosecution. They were forced to borrow money from people in their local community to cover the fine and so far have only been able to pay back half the loan.
Meanwhile, the alleged dealer’s wife was recently incarcerated for using heroin, Ah Zeng said.
An Uphill Battle
The Block 5 neighborhood has long been a favorite meeting spot for drug users.
“Our village is a good place to sell and use [drugs] because there is a forest behind the Chinese temple where they can hide from police raids,” Ah Zeng said. “When the children went to school they would see needles on the street and people using drugs.”
Myanmar remains the second-largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey for 2014. The overwhelming majority of poppy cultivation takes place in Shan State.
The report found that a total of 57,600 hectares in northern Myanmar was under opium poppy cultivation in 2014, compared to a low of 21,600 hectares in 2006. It also documented spiraling rates of drug use in the region, warning that the use of opium more than doubled and the use of heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants tripled in poppy-growing areas of northern Myanmar from 2012 to 2014.
Block 5 was already infamous in Lashio as a place to buy and use drugs when U Sein Linn, a traditional ethnic Palaung doctor, moved to the area around 20 years ago.
U Sein Linn said that after the Myanmar Army built an infantry base not far from Block 5, the road to Mong Yaw—a town about two hours’ drive away with many poppy farms—was greatly improved, making it easier to transport drugs to the local community.
However, since the youth group formed last year, U Sein Linn said he had seen a visible reduction in the number of drug addicts in the area.
Zau Bawk, a pastor at the Eden Kachin Baptist Church near Block 5, is a former heroin addict. He managed to kick a 12-year addiction with the support of his family and friends and his religious faith.
With two friends, one of whom lost a brother to drugs, and the support of the Kachin Baptist Church, Zau Bawk helped establish a drug rehabilitation center for male youth about seven miles outside of Lashio.
They used group therapy, prayer sessions and agricultural activities to help youths overcome their addiction. Zau Bawk estimated that he helped around 3,700 addicts kick the habit during the five years he served as the center’s director.
Since resigning in order to better support his family, Zau Bawk said these days the center isn’t as effective as it once was because none of the current staff have personal experience with drugs.
During his time there, when patients would seem hopeless and say they still hungered for the drug, Zau Bawk would draw on a simple, yet effective, inspiration.
“I told them that I used to be a drug user, yet I stopped,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.