‘Destroy Our Poppy Fields, But Give Us Substitute Crops’: Militiaman Detained by Anti-Opium Group
By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 2 March 2016
Over twenty Kachin anti-opium campaigners, members of the vigilante group Pat Jasan, were injured after being attacked en route to destroy poppy fields in Kachin State’s Waingmaw Township on February 25.
After guns, small hand grenades and stones were used in an assault on two of their convoys, Pat Jasan reported that they were able to detain 19 of the attackers.
The Irrawaddy’s Nang Lwin Hnin Pwint spoke with one of detainees from a group calling itself the People’s Militia. His name has been withheld for security reasons.
Did the higher-ups in your militia group give any particular instructions regarding the recent attack on Pat Jasan?
U Lagwin Baw Lwan [a director with the militia group in the region] told the militia members and villagers not to attack Pat Jasan if the Burma Army came with them, but to attack them with any weapons available if they came alone.
If so, had you been making preparations for Pat Jasan’s arrival?
We had been keeping an eye out around main streets for about two weeks.
Your superiors told you not to attack if military troops were with them. Why?
Militia leaders said that Pat Jasan would come. They told us to shoot Pat Jasan when they came. They did not ask us to shoot police. They only asked us to shoot Pat Jasan, because the government has said that they would properly compensate [poppy growers] if Burma Army soldiers came and destroyed the poppy fields.
Were there any more instructions?
U Baw Lwan gave militia members bullets and grenades—30 bullets and six grenades for each village. There are militias in every village. One person from each household [in each village] has to serve in the militia group. Militia leaders said that it is to protect our region.
What has Zakhung Ting Ying, an influential patron of local militia, said about the poppy fields?
U Zakhung said the Burma Army and the militias will jointly destroy poppy fields, and will provide rations [as compensation] for owners of poppy fields.
What do you, as a militia member and a local, think of the activities of Pat Jasan?
I think Pat Jasan are bad. They are bad because they are ‘breaking our plates.’ [Editor’s Note: this is a phrase which translates to ‘destroying our livelihoods.’]
Who grows poppies in the area? Have you ever been responsible for any poppy cultivation?
Villagers as well as militia and Chinese people grow poppies. I am not responsible for any poppy fields. There are around 200 to 300 acres of poppies in our area, and they are largely grown by locals. [The climate and soil] are not good enough to grow rice there, so locals can only grow poppies. Locals are lamenting that they will be left to starve if poppy fields are destroyed.
So, you don’t want poppy fields to be destroyed?
No, I don’t want our poppy fields to be destroyed.
Do poppy growers have to pay tax or give money to militias and the military so that they are able to grow poppies in the region?
We don’t have to give money to militias and Burmese soldiers. We sell poppies to China. Chinese men come and buy them. If poppy fields have to be destroyed, we would accept it if they are destroyed by Burmese soldiers and militias.
If that’s true, then why don’t you accept Pat Jasan as the ones to destroy poppy fields?
Pat Jasan don’t give us rations [as compensation]. Burma Army soldiers and militias said they would give us rations—they give a household a bag of rice for destroyed poppy fields. Some poppy growers are saying that they would destroy their poppy fields if Pat Jasan would give them substitute crops.
Who are the owners of poppy fields? Who grow poppies in Kachin State’s Special Region 1? Do all militias grow poppies there?
Everyone grows poppies all over—militia leaders as well as the border guard force (BGF) grow poppies there.
Then can the plan of the Burma Army and militias to jointly destroy poppy fields be successful?
They can be destroyed if they are destroyed jointly by the Burma Army. It is true that they recently destroyed poppy fields, but only three or four acres of poppy fields were destroyed then.
You said Chinese men come and buy poppies. Aren’t there checkpoints on the route? How do they get into the region?
They take an illegal route. There are checkpoints, both of militias and the BGF, on the [legal] route. And there are also Burma soldiers. But buyers can go through that route—[the authorities] know that they are coming and to buy poppies, but they can go.
So all of you grow poppies? Do your acquaintances also grow poppies?
Yes, they do. All of the villagers there grow poppies. Rice paddies are not good to grow.
How much does a household produce per year? How much do they earn?
A household [of poppy growers] produces four or five viss of opium [around 18 pounds], and they earn 5,000 to 6,000 yuan (US$760-915).
Do the Chinese also grow poppies? It has been said that they cultivate them with machines and on a commercial scale.
It is not true. Poppies are largely grown by locals, each of whom grows on a small scale. It is true that Chinese people grow poppies, but they are the Chinese who live in our region. Chinese men from other side [China] only come and buy poppies now, though they did grow them in the past. It has been almost three years since they last grew poppies. It is true that poppies are grown with machines now; it is largely mechanized.
Please tell me about the machine.
It is much like a tractor.
What kind of salary does a militia member get?
We are only paid 150 yuan (just over US$20) per month.
Will the problem repeat itself if Pat Jasan comes back?
The problem will only get bigger. All of the locals in the region have unanimously agreed to keep an eye on Pat Jasan. If they come, villagers will gather around and defend [their land]. We are local militias and are therefore responsible for stopping them from destroying our poppy fields.
If Pat Jasan would provide rations, we would accept the destruction of our poppy fields. If Pat Jasan wants to destroy poppy fields, their leaders might need to have serious negotiations with the people. It would be better if they destroyed poppy fields with the approval of locals.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We grow poppies not to make profit, but to make a living. We grow poppies on a small scale, because the rice paddy is not good [to grow]. We hope that we will no longer grow poppies if we are given substitute crops. Locals would stop growing poppies if they were given rations like rice before they finally get substitute crops.
Translated by Thet Ko Ko.