On a hill overlooking the scarred landscape of the Hpakant jade mines, five sit men huddled together in a dirty makeshift hut made from tarpaulins.
In hushed tones they help each other tie their forearms and inject heroin. Then they wait for the drug’s high to kick in and slip into oblivion.
In another 10 huts at the site, which is located in the village of Sai Taung and littered with trash and used syringes, dozens more miners are gathered to spend their hard-earned cash on opium, cheap methamphetamine and low-quality heroin.
One of them is a 23-year-old, frail-looking man nicknamed Ko Shan Shei — or Brother Long Hair — for his long unkempt locks. He left his poor village in Sagaing Division’s Ye U Township for the mines in northern Burma’s Kachin State five years ago and worked here until drugs took over his life.
“Now I am addicted to drugs and I also sell it to others,” said Ko Shan Shei. “I buy two small tubes of opium the size of a fingertip and then I take a small amount to sell to other users so I can buy food.”
He is one the estimated 300,000 migrant workers who have come from across Burma to scavenge through mining waste in the hope of finding jade stone. Daily income levels are good in Hpakant, but living conditions are harsh and deadly landslides are common. Yet, the biggest threat to the men’s health is drug addiction.
Though there are no official estimates on narcotics use in Hpakant, local community leaders, such as Reverend Sai Naw, think that up to half of the miners use drugs.
Tint Soe, a National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian from Hpakant Township, said there could be as many as 60 camps for drug users spread out among the mines.
Across the whole of Burma there are about 83,000 injecting drug users, estimates the United Nations Office and Drugs and Crime. There is, however, a dearth of data and the organisation is currently conducting the first nationwide survey on the issue.
‘Drugs are an easy choice here’
Opium, heroin and meth are easily available in Hpakant and produced by ethnic rebel groups, pro-government militias and criminal gangs in lawless parts of Kachin and Shan states.
Like many of the men doing hard work at the mines, Ko Shan Shei said he began using drugs to relax and relieve physical pain — in his case, he smoked opium to ease a persistent cough. But soon he found himself spending much of his daily income — around US$7 — on heroin, which is far more addictive due to the strong high when injected.
“The hard work makes labourers want to relax with alcohol, drugs and sex workers. Drugs are an easy choice for the men here,” he said. “Illegal drugs can be purchased easily and money can be earned without much difficulty, so there is more chance for drug addiction.”
One of the greatest risks for injecting drug users is HIV infection, which can happen when users share needles. A government service and several NGOs, such as the Asia Harm Reduction Network, provide methadone, clean syringes, and counselling and HIV testing for thousands of users in Hpakant.
Médecins Sans Frontières said it runs a clinic that provides antiretroviral drugs and other medicine to nearly 2,000 HIV/AIDS patients in Hpakant, while it helps another 8,000 patients in four clinics in Kachin State.
Some NGOs organised into the Drug Advocacy Group have called on the new NLD government to scale up such services and shift to a rights- and healthcare-based approach to drug abuse problem.
While there are harm-reduction services for the miners, law enforcement by authorities is largely absent and users at the site near Sai Taung made no effort to hide their drug abuse. Some walked around with needles still hanging from their veins so they could easily shoot up again later.
Tint Soe, the MP, said drug dealers operate freely as they pay off local officials, police and military officers, while local authorities also lack capacity to control the vast mining area.
“Law enforcement cannot reach remote areas where there are [jade] scavengers, who are the regular customers for illegal drug dealers,” he said.
Pat Ja San, the vigilante anti-drug movement set up by the Kachin Baptist Church, is also active in Hpakant and has deployed its hardline tactics of sending groups of volunteers to apprehend dealers and users.
“We normally arrest drug dealers. When we find drug abusers, we seize the drugs and release them,” said Khu Lwam, a local Pat Ja San member.
He said last October the group nabbed a female member of a local drug-dealing ring who carried a ledger that recorded nearly half a million dollars in bribes paid to top officials, police and army commanders in Hpakant over the course of 58 days.
Pat Ja San has held on to the ledger out of distrust of local authorities and Tint Soe raised the allegations in the lower house of parliament in February.
‘I deeply regretted my situation’
The Baptist Church-led movement also operates a rehabilitation centre near Hpakant called Uru Htwe San, a spartan camp with simple sleeping quarters that are surrounded by barbed-wire fences to prevent addicts from running away.
Rev. Sai Naw leads the camp where he tries to help about 50 men and women end their addiction solely through Bible teaching — a method that has been criticised by groups promoting harm reduction.
“We have a difficult task to provide for all of them. We need land, food and accommodation — we cannot afford everything. There are so many needy [users] in the Hpakant area and we can help a small number of them,” he said.
A 29-year-old Kachin woman named Gar Lew said her husband, who earns about $8 per day from jade trading, sent her to the camp to end her opium addiction after she failed to care for their two children.
“I was willing to do so but could not control myself. I was angry when they brought me to the rehabilitation centre, but I am okay now,” she said.
Ko Shan Shei said he had returned to his native village twice to end his addiction, but relapsed every time he came back to Hpakant. He said he felt ashamed of his life as a homeless addict.
“During the Water Festival, I saw some people happily celebrating but I was in dirty clothes,” Ko Shan Shei said. “I deeply regretted my situation when I compared myself with ordinary people.”
He added: “As I am still young I think I have enough strength to quit drugs. Hopefully, I will succeed this time.”