Ethnic Issues

Pray Away the Pain: Going Cold Turkey in Kachin

By Seamus Martov 5 June 2015

MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Like most of the Christian faith-based rehabilitation clinics to spring up around the Kachin State capital in recent years, the All Nation drug treatment center adopts a tough love approach to its patients.

Founding director Lu Lu Tin said All Nation is a place of healing. While her methods may be unorthodox, many in the Kachin community say that drastic methods are necessary in order to combat heroin use among young people, a drug that in recent years has become extremely common across much of northern Burma and Kachin State in particular.

“You have to be tough sometimes—other times you can be gentle,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Upon entering Lu Lu Tin’s treatment centre, patients are immediately cut off from their addictions and provided no substitute other than a steady dose of prayer and the bible. Sudden withdrawal from heroin and other opiates can be extremely uncomfortable for addicts, who endure shakes, sweats, nausea and disorientation.

“I couldn’t sleep for 10 days”, explains Brang Mai, a 23-year-old patient from Hpakant, home to many of Kachin State’s jade mines. His sleeplessness was compounded by other side effects of heroin withdrawal, including frequent bouts of diarrhoea and severe pain.

Although some international NGOs operating in the state supply addicts with methadone, a prescription medication used to wean people off heroin, most of Myitkyina’s treatment centres shun its use. The All Nation center doesn’t use any drugs to mitigate withdrawal symptoms, and Lu Lu Tin considers the use of methadone “swapping one addiction for another.”

As is common practice with the faith-based treatment programs, at Lu Lu Tin’s facility patients are closely supervised during the first few days of detox. A small cell, not unlike a chicken coop, is reserved for patients deemed troublesome. Once the worst effects of withdrawal have passed, patients spend the next three months engaged in bible studies and regular group prayer.

Touch One, Touch All

The patients at the All Nation come from all manner of backgrounds and occupations. Many are laborers in Kachin state’s backbreaking jade and gold mines, but heroin addiction is not exclusive to those of modest means.

Ah Noh, a patient at All Nation for less than a month, was born into a well-to-do family, married a goldsmith and used to have a well-paying career at an NGO. After several years of opium use, her friends turned her onto smoking heroin, and in time she said her habit grew to the point where she was regularly spending 70,000 kyats (US$64) per day on the drug—more than most in Burma earn in a week. By the time her family dropped her off at the treatment center, the drug had taken its toll, leaving her frail and looking far older than her 28 years.

Although opium has been used for traditional medicine and recreational purposes for centuries in this area, the last decade or so has seen a major uptick in the amount of heroin available across much of northern Burma. Another long time user told The Irrawaddy that he made the switch from opium several years ago, when it became harder to acquire the unprocessed form of the drug. Many in Kachin State maintain that the wider availability of heroin has transformed what was a far less serious drug problem into a crisis of massive proportions.

“I started using [heroin] for fun with friends,” explains 29-year-old Naw Seng, a former patient who now works as a centre staffer. Years of sharing needles with fellow addicts left Naw Seng with HIV, an ailment common among intravenous drug users. Now clean and on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, Naw Seng says he’s much better than when he first arrived at the clinic, when he was beginning to experience the first symptoms of AIDS. Despite being drug free for nearly three years, Naw Seng’s family in Bhamo still don’t trust him, a common dilemma for many recovering addicts seeking a fresh start.

The Needle and the Damage Done

In a refugee camp located just outside Myitkyina, relatives of Tu Ja hold a prayer service and share a traditional meal with their friends and neighbors to mark the 30-year-old’s passing. He died the previous day from a long illness, following a lengthy battle with heroin.

Tu Ja and his family were uprooted from their village at Nam Sam Yang in late 2011, shortly after a 17 year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Burmese government ended in dramatic fashion. The upheaval appears to have been a major contributing factor towards the unmarried day labourer’s downward spiral. His premature demise leaves the Tu Ja’s already widowed and frail mother with one less child to support her.

“Dying young is the fate of his generation”, explained Tu Ja’s brother-in-law. While solid statistics on the number of young people who have succumbed to drugs appear unavailable, anecdotal evidence suggests that many share this bleak assessment. Nearly every person The Irrawaddy spoke to about the drug problem in Myitkyina had a family member or knew of someone who was addicted to heroin, and Tu Ja was far from the first resident of his camp to die from drugs.

“Its an epidemic,” said Tu Ja’s brother-in-law, a veteran activist who, like many Kachin, believe the government has at the very least deliberately turned a blind eye to the high levels of addiction amongst local youth since the Kachin conflict resumed four years ago.

Zau Hpan, a Baptist pastor from Myitkyina’s Sitapur quarter, says the drug problem in Kachin state is too serious to be left to the government to handle. Along with his parishioners, he recently formed a group to patrol the streets, waging their very own anti-drug campaign by conducting citizen arrests of both drug pushers and users. For him, there is no doubt about the scale of the crisis facing the youth of Kachin State.

“More people have died from drugs than the war”, he says, a view few in Myitkyina would disagree with.

At the request of patients interviewed at the All Nation clinic, some of the names in this story have been changed.