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Northern Burma’s poppy fields are the world’s second main source of heroin next to Afghanistan.
Although little reliable data exists, residents and aid workers claim an increasing number of young Burmese are becoming drug addicts.
The drug of choice is known as “formula” – a cocktail of cough medicine and opium that is taken as a drink. Straight heroin is also widely smoked and injected.
In Kachin state, 23-year-old Sang Naw uses heroin; he shoots up twice a day.
“Some of my friends were using it so I wanted to give it a try,” he said. “The first time, my friend gave me too much and it nearly killed me.”
He said his mother sent him to Rangoon for three months to get clean. However once back in Kachin state, he started using again.
“If I go to the rehabilitation centre, I can quit for a month or two, but when I come back and see my friends I start using again because it’s easy to buy.”
Brang Nu is the pastor of a Baptist church in a village close to the Myitsone dam. The Chinese-backed project was suspended by President Thein Sein after a public outcry.
Pastor Brang Nu blames the workers at the dam for bringing drugs to the area.
“When the project started, many gold diggers came here. That’s when the drug business started. Now everyone – young and old – is using drugs,” he said.
There are no official figures on how many drug addicts there are in the country but social workers say the numbers are increasing.
With recent democratic reforms, Burma is now feeling increasing pressure to tackle its drug problem.
Seventy-year-old Kyaw Min founded the Voluntary Social Workers’ Association – an organisation that helps drug addicts quit. He set up the group after his brother died in 1999 from an overdose.
“I could not help my brother who was addicted and died,” he said. “I don’t want this to happen to other people.”
He went on to say that it is difficult for drug addicts like Sang Naw to break the cycle.
“Even after years in a rehabilitation camp with vocational training, [the addicts] start using again as soon as they go back into society,” he said.
“We have to understand that they are patients who need long-term help.”
Kyaw Min said the best thing to do is to try and stop people from starting.
“Prevention is a better cure,” he said. “We spread awareness in communities and schools. We know our work is limited but it could have an impact on many people’s future.”