RANGOON – Ahead of a United Nations summit on global drug issues, Burma’s Drug Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG) has highlighted the need to develop humane drug policies at home.
The Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) is scheduled to be held in New York from April 19-21. Burma remains one of the world’s major producers of opium, heroin and amphetamines.
During a public event in Rangoon on Monday, members of the Drug Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG) spoke on a panel about the country’s drug-related legal framework, as well as health and social consequences of drug use.
Dr. Nang Pann Ei Kham, coordinator of the DPAG, said that it was hoped the event would engage key stakeholders on the importance of developing more compassionate drug policies in Burma. The network, formed in 2014 by “likeminded” organizations and individuals, supports a global campaign to rehabilitate and reintegrate drug users into society under the theme “Support, Don’t Punish.”
She explained that DPAG aims to develop an advocacy platform for “non-punitive, evidence-based drug policy changes” in the country. Its members include both domestic and international groups, such as the National Drug Users Network Myanmar (NDNM), Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum (MOFF), Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association (MANA), Medicins du Monde (MdM), Save the Children, Transnational Institute (TNI), HIV/AIDS Alliance and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.
The key recommendations raised by advocates included the decriminalization of drug use and possession for personal use, voluntary treatment for drug addiction, a removal of the compulsory registration requirement for rehabilitation, and the assurance that drug-related laws and policies would demonstrate respect for human rights.
Lun Khwang, a member of NDNM since 2011, is now advocating for health check-ups amongst his peers in Myitkyina, Kachin State who happen to be drug users.
“We don’t want to be marginalized when we want to stop using,” he said.
As a former small-scale gold miner in northern Kachin State, Lun Khwang said that taking heroin helped him to perform hard labor. “We need our jobs to live,” he explained.
He recalled how it took him four years to successfully stop using opiates once he started methadone treatment in 2007.
NDNM members said there was a need to develop national methadone treatment guidelines and to review the compulsory registration required for drug-users to get help. Access to healthcare and the right to rehabilitation would be more beneficial than punishment, they argue.
Lun Khwang added that NDNM supports the efforts of the Kachin group Pat Ja San, which has been carrying out drug eradication efforts by destroying fields of opium poppies. Yet he adds that such groups should not physically punish drug users—there are rumors of them being beaten.
“It is not the right action,” said Lun Khwang. “A further crackdown on the drug users would quickly increase the risk of spreading HIV and other diseases, from the shared use of needles.”
Police Lt. Kyaw Kyaw Min, the head of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control in Lower Burma said that despite the efforts of civil society to draft a bill to address treatment for drug addiction, “there is no infrastructure yet for drug users’ rehabilitation, either in compulsory or voluntary centers.”
Regarding the establishment of rehabilitation facilities, Kyaw Kyaw Min suggested more direct collaboration at the township or community level between the local social welfare department and the drug users themselves.
During the panel, opium farmers from Shan and Karenni states explained how ongoing armed conflict has impacted their livelihoods. They stressed the fact that they grow opium to support their families, and that many such farmers cultivate poppies in an effort to escape poverty.
Min Thein, an opium grower and a representative of the MOFF said that Burma’s civil war, combined with a shrinking market for other crops, had pushed people like him to grow opium.
“We were in hiding all the time during past decades,” said Min Thein, a resident of Karenni State’s Demoso Township. “And so we started growing opium, where an easy market has been available.” He said that with his income from opium crops, he has been able to support his family and pay for the education of his children, who have now graduated from high school.
Lashila, who spoke on behalf of opium farmers from northern Shan State’s Lashio, said that they want their voices heard when legislative reform is discussed, a process which they have tried to initiate in recent years.
Unless there is an alternative approach put forward for development, Lashila maintains that the number of farmers in Burma who cultivate opium poppies will not decrease.