Palaung Community Tries New Method to Fight Drug Addiction

By Lawi Weng 6 December 2016

NAMKHAM, Shan State — Activist Mai Aike Naing invented a new method to fight drug addiction in Mann Aung, an ethnic Palaung—also known as Ta’ang—village in Namkham Township, northern Shan State, and he is proud of the progress that his youth organization has made so far.

“We only have six people now in our community who use drugs,” he said. “And we are waiting for the last ones to come to our rehabilitation camp.”

In October, Mai Aike Naing and his youth group, which includes Buddhist monks, decided to establish a drug rehabilitation camp. The members all contribute money for the care of those in the community who abuse drugs or alcohol.

Although the drug problem is relatively low in Namkham, drug addiction is a disease that requires ongoing treatment. And if that treatment isn’t available, then former addicts might return to drug abuse, Mai Aike Naing explained.

There were different types of addicts who first arrived at the rehabilitation camp. Some used opium, some used amphetamines, and others consumed alcohol. Normally, family members of the drug users reported them to community leaders, and the families requested that their relatives be assigned to the rehabilitation program.

Many addicts arrive at the rehabilitation camp in a bad state.

“Some people went crazy from the drugs. They know nothing in their minds. So their families detained them, and they sent them to us,” said Ashin Dama Linkara, a local religious leader.

Mai Aike Naing invited The Irrawaddy to visit to the rehabilitation camp, where we talked to recovering drug users who were eating dinner together in their kitchen. They invited us to eat with them.

The camp is arranged like an army camp. Situated on a hill, there is one long living hall constructed of wood and bamboo, and all of the drug users sleep in it. About 30 people currently stay in the camp, and they range in age from about 25 to about 60 years old.

As those in recovery played cane ball to pass the time, the late November weather was notably cold on the mountainside. For those in the rehabilitation program, the living conditions are spartan.

“We let them wake up in the early morning and run around in the village,” said Mai Aike Naing. “We let them grow vegetables in order to make use of their downtime. We even asked for treatment help from the medical clinic in Mann Aung.”

The camp aims to make the rehabilitation a constructive experience.

“We even let them participate in some workshops with the Ta’ang Student and Youth Union who come to give education talks about drugs,” he said.

For someone in treatment for the first time, the program normally lasts one month before they are permitted to return home. After that, if the community finds that a drug user has relapsed, he will be detained and assigned to three additional months in the camp.

“We have a rule,” said Mai Aike Naing. “We assign a punishment from one month to three months. Beyond that, we’ll assign from seven months to two years if the person keeps using drugs.”

In its first month, the community assigned 30 drug users to live in the rehabilitation camp. Now in its third month, the camp has treated 80 individuals in total, according to the community leaders. Some addicts have even volunteered to stay longer than their one-month assignment, Mai Aike Naing added.

Treating Drug Addiction

“We needed to have this rehabilitation camp,” said Ashin Dama Linkara. “Without it, our drug problem would spread like fire again one day.”

For the past three years, before the rehabilitation camp was created, Mai Aike Naing and his youth organization trained a network of anti-drug volunteers. These volunteers canvassed the greater Mann Aung area, which includes more than 1,000 households spread across the four villages of Mann Aung, Pha Lin, Pa Dae, and Ju Sai. The volunteers do not carry guns, but they may use sticks and knives to apprehend drug users and sellers.

Since 2014, Mai Aike Naing’s youth volunteers have helped send 10 drug users to prison. As a result, he said that the families of those individuals have experienced a better standard of living once their addicted family members were removed from the home situation.

“I met their families sometimes,” he said. “And they told me how they have better lives after those drug users went to prison.”

But Mai Aike Naing found that prison alone wasn’t enough to solve the addiction crisis. By opening the rehabilitation camp, it encouraged more drug users to come forward and seek treatment, he said.

“Some of our Palaung people were afraid of other ethnic groups,” he said. “Other people would beat and torture them if they tried to go get treatment. So instead, they came to our camp.”

A Community Effort

On a mountainside close to Mann Aung village, many farms once cultivated opium poppies. Local officials said the presence of poppies led to crime—there were thieves in the community, and even cases of domestic violence.

But community leaders intervened with the farmers, and the amount of poppies grown in the area steadily declined. In the areas close to the village, local officials said they haven’t seen anyone growing poppies yet this year.

The rehabilitation camp is operated by volunteers, and local residents provide the food and resources to supply it. Community leaders say the Mann Aung rehabilitation camp is a symbol of successful drug elimination by the community.

All of the camp organizers must contribute their own money to the project.

“Sometimes, we had to go ask the community for food donations,” explained Ashin Dama Linkara. But other than that, he said, “we set this place up on our own.”