Three heroin overdoses in Kachin State’s Ngwe Pyaw Sanpya village last week are indicative of wider regional trends, as local clinics claim drug use has become rampant in the absence of drug seizures and arrests.
Most concerning, says Ja Kashin Tang Raw, director of the Ram Hkey Shalat rehabilitation center, is an increase in drug use amongst 15 and 16 year olds. The trend, he adds, is not limited to urban areas.
“Drug use is increasing after the coup due to the impact of political instability that has exacerbated drug use,” the center’s director told DVB.
“Drug use has worsened in almost all of Kachin State since the coup. Authorities are less likely to arrest users or sellers than they used to be. Authorities are now focusing on arresting politicians—and ignoring the drug issue.”
Ram Hkey Shalat is one of 50 centers for drug users helping to address addiction in Kachin. Since its establishment almost ten years ago as a government-recognized organization, more than 1,000 drug users have successfully entered recovery after completing programs grounded in both education and practical treatment.
Originally established as a safetynet for those afflicted by Kachin’s drug problem, such centers are now the only institutions geared to steering the state’s population away from addiction. Ram Khay Shalat’s director says that, although no government has ever been fully able to address the drug issue, without law enforcement, sales and usage have spiraled out of control. Some groups are even taking advantage of the power vacuum to proliferate drugs internationally.
Already highly vulnerable to heroin imports from Shan State, one clinic told DVB that usage rates among men could now be as high as 90% in Myitkyina and 80% in Putao.
Although others cast doubt on this astronomical figure, a 2019 report from BBC Media Action program Khansarkyi found that as many as 70% of Kachin youths were regularly using heroin or yaba (a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine sold as cheap red pills).
Disagreements over exact numbers aside, all clinics agree on one thing: in the absence of law enforcement, drug usage has rapidly spiralled out of control.
“I am not entirely sure if 90 percent of men who are using drugs in Myitkyina, but it is clear there are now an increasing number of drug users due to the political turmoil,” said a spokesperson from Pat Jasan, an anti-drug organization in Kachin State based on the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). The clinic has been in operation since 2014. “Most people are increasingly using easy to obtain drugs after losing their jobs and becoming emotionally drained.”
Ja Kashin Tang Raw adds that cities playing host to jade and gold industries are typically also those most vulnerable to the proliferation of drugs. Hpakant, he says, is a prime example.
The gem-drug nexus of Burma is well documented; many of the industry’s bosses have for years purposefully encouraged cultures of drug addiction, rewarding those working in their mines with narcotics over cash.
“This is a very serious situation. Arrests of drug users have been rare since the coup, especially as addicts are using at home,” Ja Kashin Tang Raw said.
“Drugs are now more readily available and more expensive. Usually, drug prices depend on the circumstances of seizures: the more seized from the drug dealers, the more expensive the drug price. Now there is nobody to catch anyone, so a user can buy as much as he likes.”
The price of illicit drugs has sunk as the epidemic spreads and competition amongst dealers increases. While the price of heroin used to range from hundreds of thousands of kyat for a single injection, one can now get a hit for as little as K500 (US30 cents), according to Kachin News.
The state average currently stands at K1,000 (US55 cents) per dose, and nowhere in Kachin does it cost a user more than K10,000 (US$6) to get high. With little political or economic pressure on users, Ja Kashin Tang Raw says reducing usage has become a community affair.
“Whichever government held power in Burma, none has successfully dealt with the drug issue. Therefore, the community must play an important role,” the director told DVB.
“Young people are not able to break free from drugs on their own, it is better to have a community or organization that helps them.”
Christian clinics like Ram Hkey Shalat have been heavily targeted by military raids and harassment across ethnic regions, especially in Chin and Karen States. Although the institutions have yet to experience junta intervention, the clinic’s ability to run in the face of Burma’s post-coup institutional breakdown remains to be seen.
Even if the military refrains from interfering, drug-inspired robberies and crime now pose an ever-present threat to those helping curb Kachin’s addiction crisis.
“Even the police themselves do not go out at night, so they can no longer arrest drug users. As such, theft and robberies are more prevalent in drug use areas,” said Pat Jasan’s spokesperson . “There are cases almost every day.”