The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, a community based human rights organisation, has claimed that the Burma Army and government backed militias are enabling a drug crisis in Kachin State.
“Where the Burma Army has seized former Kachin Independence Army territories, it has allowed its allies to expand control over these areas. Overturning KIA anti-drug policies which had limited poppy cultivation, these allies have promoted opium growing and drug refining, leading to an increase in drug production,” KWAT said in the report.
The 50-page report referred to first hand interviews of drug addicts and family members, detailing the terrible cost drug abuse is having on communities.
A woman from Myitkyina was quoted in the report describing how her nephew died from drug abuse.
“He started taking opium when he was 13, because of his friends. His parents were in jail on drug charges. When he needed money to buy drugs, he stole from his grand- mother. He started to take No. 4 (heroin). He was using his friends’ syringes to take no. 4. Because of that he was infected with HIV, and died.”
A 2013 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said that opium production in the Golden Triangle had increased 22% in 2012-13. The report noted that of this figure, 13% of the increase was in East Burma alone.
“In 2013, Lao PDR and Myanmar produced 893 tonnes of opium – 18 per cent of global opium production – a 22% increase from 2012, and 2.7 times more than in 2005 when they produced 326 tonnes,” the UNODC report stated.
KWAT said that opium was booming in areas of government control, in both Kachin and Shan State and criticized the UNODC for allegedly underestimating the scale of the drug problem, saying that drug use was widespread among workers, including miners, truck drivers and young people.
“Opium, heroin and methamphetamines are flooding from these government-controlled areas into Kachin communities, worsening existing problems of drug abuse, particularly among youth. It is estimated that about one third of students in Myitkyina and Bhamo universities are injecting drug users,” KWAT said.
KWAT claimed that the UNODC’s 2013 report was not accurate because it did not take into account all opium-growing areas, including Chipwi Township in Kachin State and Muse District in Shan State and did not verify satellite data with on the ground sources.
“The data collected by KWAT about opium-growing areas contrasts with data in the UNODC’s 2013 South-East Asia Opium Survey. This is worrying, as the UNODC opium surveys are accepted internationally as the most reliable assessment of drug trends in Burma, and are influential in shaping policies of international donors,” KWAT said.
Karen News put these criticisms to UNODC’s Burma office and was still awaiting a response at the time of publication.
Doctor Voravit Suwanvanichkij, a research associate at the Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and specialist on Burma’s healthcare system, said that drug use in Burma was contributing to a rise in HIV rates.
“Official figures are around 200,000 are estimated to live with HIV/AIDs in Burma, and the country faces an epidemic that is mostly concentrated, particularly in men who have sex with men, injection drug users, and sex workers,” he said in an interview with Karen News.
Dr. Suwanvanichkij also said that the true extent of the issue was hidden by stigma and a broken healthcare system. “However, the problem with this data echoes problems with so much other health data from Burma: with a health system that has been wrecked through decades of neglect and disinvestment, reliable figures are difficult to come by, including for priority diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and under-reporting is likely to be problematic. In the data that we do have, the states in Burma that face the most severe epidemics of HIV/AIDS are likely Kachin and Shan States.”
Burma is the world’s second largest producer of poppy after Afghanistan. KWAT noted that four current MPs in the Shan State Assembly were leaders of government-backed militias with alleged links to the drug trade.
“The future of the Kachin people is at stake. We need urgent action to tackle the drug problem before it’s too late,” Shirley Seng, a spokesperson from Kwat, said.