Drug Addiction Lurks in Kachin Conflict's Shadow

By Gemunu Amarasinghe 21 March 2013

MYITKYINA—Freshly dumped hypodermic syringes litter alleys, cemeteries and shaded corners in Myitkyina, the provincial capital of Kachin state, on Burma’s northern border with China.

Myitkyina is known for having one of the highest concentrations of drug addicts in the world. The Kachin Baptist Convention, an evangelical group with more than 300 churches in the state, says nearly 80 percent of ethnic Kachin youth are addicts. Their drug of choice is heroin.

Opium is grown here, and heroin is cheap and easy to find. Help in overcoming addiction, however, is rare.

The men who come to the Kachin Baptist Convention’s rehabilitation camp, one of the few places addicts can seek help, hope to find healing in God. They warm their hands around bowls of rice in the morning chill.

Then they gather to sing gospel songs, their faces lit with tears as the sun rises. Just 31 of the 49 men who came to the camp — the first the convention has ever set up — managed to finish the three-month program in February.

The government also runs a drug rehabilitation hospital in Kachin state, but some here say officials have done far too little, and even accuse them of turning a blind eye to drug abuse to decimate young people who might otherwise become rebels.

Fighting broke out in 2011 between the Kachin Independence Army, which has long been struggling for greater self-rule, and ethnic Burmese majority government forces. It has continued despite the announcement of a ceasefire in January.

“They want to destroy the Kachin youth, especially because there is a revolution going on and they don’t want the youth to join it,” says Gryung Heang, the pastor of the camp church.

Officials dismiss such views. “This is an extremist separatist idea,” says police Col. Myint Thein, who oversees a drug abuse control unit. “It is just a false accusation.”

Inside the rough wood and corrugated metal sheds of the rehabilitation camp, it is plain that getting off drugs is a deeply personal process, not a political one.

Shrouded in mist, 30-year-old Nlan Shawang walks into the light. He clenches his fists, his eyes squeezed shut with emotion. “I feel sad and happy,” he says. “Sad because I didn’t know God for so long. Happy because now I see him.”