Drug Culture Thrives in Mon State

By Lawi Weng 21 May 2013

RANGOON—Nai Kun Oung, a resident from north Mon State, remembers when he first decided to send his son to a drug rehabilitation center run by ethnic rebels. He had heard success stories about the center, where former drug addicts were known to have recovered after several months, and he thought his son might benefit.

His son Min Than—who, like his father, asked that his real name not be used in this article—was addicted to amphetamine, like hundreds of ethnic Mon teenagers in the southeastern Burma state. On one drunken night after getting his fix, he went into a rage at his home in Mudon Township, lashing out physically at his father and destroying their furniture, but after a year at the rehabilitation center, he had recovered from his addiction.

Many families with similar stories have sent their sons to rehabilitation centers run by the New Mon State Party (NMSP), an ethnic armed group. The rehabilitation centers are part of a larger anti-drug campaign launched by the group earlier this year, amid fears that more youths were becoming addicted to the drug, and several army bases in the state have since been used as detention centers for hundreds of suspected drug offenders.

But despite the desire to help, Nai Banyar Lai, a senior leader from the NMSP, said the group faced challenges in its campaign, including at the rehabilitation centers.

“We face many problems here while trying to help victims resettle and find employment after they stay with us,” he told The Irrawaddy recently. “The problem is that we have very few [rehabilitation center workers] who are experienced with providing treatment to drug addicts. Another problem is we lack enough facilities to treat people.”

Nai Banyar Lai, who oversees the anti-drug campaign farther south in Tenasserim Division, said more than 30 people had been detained at an army base there, including drug users and dealers.

At the start of the anti-drug operation, the NMSP in Moulmein District only detained suspects in small huts at their army bases. After arresting more people, however, a lack of space prompted the party to build a separate jail compound.

“We let some people stay outside the jail after their families assured us they would not run away from our base,” Nai Marng, another NMSP member, told The Irrawaddy. “We have to do it like this because it’s very crowded in the jail, as there are many detainees.”

Twenty-nine people were detained in early May during a three-day crackdown in Thanbyuzayat Township, according to NMSP members.

A leading member of the anti-drug force said detainees who were found with more than 10 amphetamine tablets were suspected to be drug dealers, while those with fewer tablets were suspected to be drug users.

“There were many people who are drug users,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re considering how we can cooperate with the government to eliminate this [drug problem].”

Stamping out the drug trade in Mon State has been no easy task for the NMSP, which says it lacks cooperation from local authorities and the national government. The group says it has been unable to arrest the ringleaders of the local trade, who continue to evade their crackdowns.

Amphetamine tablets sell for anywhere between 6,000 kyats (US $6.50) in Mudon Township to 3,000 kyats in bordering Karen State, a common source of the drug for many Mon farmers who grow rubber plants there and buy tablets to resell for a profit at home.

A local rights group, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, said in a report earlier this month that authorities had failed to crack down on the drug trade, allowing a plentiful supply to build up in numerous villages. Addicted teenagers have started skipping school, the rights group said, while others have become homeless or caused trouble on the streets, often without consequence from their parents or village administrators.

Rampant drug use has altered the local culture, the report said. Traditionally, ethnic Mon offered refreshments such as tea when hosting parties, but in recent years, the report said, alcohol and the Thai energy drink M-150 have become more popular.

Pre-party drug use is also common, the report said, citing the use of amphetamine and an opiate-like leaf known as Kratom which is indigenous to Southeast Asia and known as Bai Kratom over the border in Thailand.

The rights group said drug users in the state often went unpunished, and expressed concern that drug use would continue to distort the local culture.