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A young girl emerges from a dark room with barred windows. Inside a group of women sit huddled on the dirty floor, some clutching small children. At immediate glance the women look like addicts. Their faces are emaciated and their eyes heavy with shadows.
Eleven-year-old Jangma Doi Bu is one of them.
She stares vacantly into the courtyard, as she explains how her mother first introduced her to heroin. She spent much of her childhood smuggling drugs over the Chinese border with her younger brother. But it wasn’t until their mother was forced into rehab by the Kachin authorities that they ended up smoking it themselves. Left unattended, their mother’s drug dealer took them to live with her in China, where she forced them to work in exchange for food.
“One day she gave me some drugs rolled up in paper and showed me how to burn it with a gas-lighter,” explains Jangma Doi Bu. “She said if you use this you will work harder. I didn’t know what it was until her husband told me later.”
It took over a month for their mother to realise they were missing and ask the authorities to track them down. They are now two of the youngest residents at the compulsory drug rehabilitation centre run by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) at their headquarters in Laiza.
Established in 2010 as part of a KIO drive to eradicate drug use from the northern state – estimated by some to be as high as 70 percent among youths – over 1,000 people have passed through its doors in the past year. Anyone captured with drugs is immediately detained for a period of 15 days to six months. Twenty-two of the 118 current prisoners are women. Most of them are addicted to heroin, opium or methamphetamine – available in abundance throughout Burma.
“Some are volunteers, some have been arrested,” explains Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp, who manages the facility. “We arrest both the drug dealers and users, because if there are no dealers there won’t be any users either.”
Inmates are held in concrete cells with dusty mats or cardboard sheets for beds, inside a compound fenced with barbed wire. In one room, a man squats shackled with metal chains from head to feet.
“He tried to escape,” says a KIO official, who asked not to be named, before telling us not to take pictures. “The international community doesn’t understand things like that.”“Human rights groups have universally condemned the forced incarceration of addicts”
New arrivals are initially locked in isolation for a week as a form of detoxification, but Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp hastens to add that they are “usually” kept in a group because one inmate attempted suicide.
“This way they can look after each other,” he says. “Some people that come here have gone completely crazy from too much methamphetamine, they just shout and yell. But now they have recovered.”
Thirty-year-old Maran Ja Mai admits she smoked heroin throughout most of her pregnancy and went into premature labour shortly after being detained.
“The doctor suggested that they give her some heroin [to prevent her giving birth], which we approved,” says Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp. “The international community might blame us for doing that, but we don’t have very modern medicine here.”
Although they managed to avoid an early labour, Maran Ja Mai started using again after her release and ended up back inside. This time she insists she will “stay clean” for her daughter.
As she speaks, Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp disappears into an adjacent room and emerges with several bags stuffed with white and brown powder. He slaps them on the table in front of the recovering addict and chuckles. He explains that the KIO confiscates vast amounts of narcotics each year, which are kept in the detention centre and burnt annually in a bonfire to mark World Drug Day.
“This is a very promising programme,” he says, beaming with pride. “Now there are almost no drug users left in Laiza. Even if we try to find them, we hardly ever see drug addicts here anymore.”
But human rights groups have universally condemned the forced incarceration of addicts, particularly children. Earlier this year, the UN described compulsory rehabilitation centres as a “serious concern”, which “raise[s] human rights issues and threaten[s] the health of detainees, including through increased vulnerability to HIV.”
Although the KIO runs a partnership with an international health NGO, which provides anti-retroviral medicine for HIV-infected patients, local groups say authorities are “monopolising” treatment. They warn that the KIO’s zero-tolerance policy prohibits them from implementing effective harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchange programmes.
“In this area [Laiza] we can’t run a drop-in centre or provide any medicines, because the KIO is running the drug prohibition programme,” said Bawk Hkun from the Kachin Development Group. “Because of that policy, some activities in harm reduction cannot run.”
La Rip, who manages the humanitarian umbrella group RANIR in Laiza, adds that the KIO’s policy forces intravenous drug users under ground. “Their drug policy ends up increasing HIV infection. Because drug users are scared of being arrested so they will inject in hiding places, where they share needles and it’s very difficult to find them and help them.”
Locals agree that crime has reduced dramatically in Laiza and other townships since the eradication programme began. But the Captain admits that the KIO encourages “graduates” to leave Laiza and return to their home towns, even handing them money for the trip. So they have no real way of measuring its impact.
With government troops closing in on the rebels, the KIO’s capacity to monitor even those people living nearby is in doubt. As Jangma Doi Bu and her brother Jangma Kai Seng discovered – there was no one to look after them when their mother was incarcerated. The KIO simply left them to fend for themselves – a reality which doesn’t seem to have changed. They are due for release into their mother’s custody again at the end of their term, even though it could easily spark a relapse.
“We worry that if she stays with her children she will come to use drugs again,” admits the Captain. “But they can go home [with her] if they want.”