A group of sickle-wielding vigilantes made its way through Myanmar’s northern Kachin State in January and February, clearing poppy fields nearly ready to be harvested in a quest to end production of the illicit drug. The mission turned farmers whose livelihoods were being cut down into angry and, at times, armed adversaries.
Pat Ja San’s anti-drug campaign refocused attention on a problem that has long plagued Myanmar, the second-largest producer of raw opium in the world. Though opium production in Kachin State was estimated to have decreased by 17 percent last year – from roughly 5100 hectares in 2014 to 4200ha in 2015 – it still accounts for 7.6pc of the nationwide total, according to numbers from the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime.
“Each Kachin family has a problem with opium. They get angry about opium. Their families are broken and many young people have HIV,” said Reverend Samson Hkalam, general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which backs Pat Ja San.
In 1999, the government of Myanmar committed to a 15-year plan to eliminate illicit crop production, but the deadline has since been extended to 2019. The consequence of this plan, according to experts, is a repressive opium eradication policy which landed many small-time drug offenders in jail and saw swathes of poppy fields eradicated. But the problem remained.
The futility of these policies is most visible when the monsoon rains recede and opium poppy blossoms in the green hills of Kachin, Shan, Chin and Kayah states. With few other means of survival, the poppy farmers continue to replant their crop despite the threat of destruction.
“[The farmers’] investment is probably not from their own savings but from loans. When you eradicate more you push the farmers to grow more because they need to compensate [for their losses],” said Sai Lone, a representative of the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum.
The farmers pay a high price. Farmers cultivate opium in mountainous areas where not many other crops will grow, or at least can’t compete with the income generated by poppy. According to a 2012 UNODC survey, the average yield of dry opium per hectare is about 19 times that of rice in mountain areas.
“The large majority of opium farmers are not rich and grow it for their survival. Therefore, they should not be treated as criminals,” Myanmar opium farmers said in a statement released in September last year.
Many opium-growing communities face huge challenges, particularly from drug addiction, which often tears families apart. There is a lack of rehabilitation options and counselling for drug users and limited healthcare to deal with consequences of the addiction, like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
The volunteer drug eradicators of Pat Ja San – which loosely means “fighting against drugs” in Kachin – have become notorious for military-inspired tactics used against drug addicts. The group faced heavy criticism last year when a video was circulated on social media showing alleged members flogging addicts to deter them from using.
But the group’s current eradication campaign has gained widespread local support, including from civil society groups. “We commend and support community-led anti-drugs campaign (Pat Jasan) in Kachin and Shan State as their non-violent measure is decent and targeting the common enemy of mankind conscientiously where State failed to take effective measures,” according to a recent CSO statement.
Equality Myanmar, led by human rights activist U Aung Myo Min, was one of the over 200 organisations that are part of the CSO Forum that issued the statement. U Aung Myo Min told The Myanmar Times that even though he supported Pat Ja San’s goal to eradicate opium, he did not support all the means they use to achieve it. “We cannot tolerate it, despite their noble goal,” he said.
He said that the statement included a clause that explained the CSOs’ position on the issue of human rights. “We recommend Pat Ja San leaders and concerned community leaders refrain from the harmful act/activities vigilantly and strongly encourage developing strategic leadership and direction,” the groups said in the statement.
Experts say that Pat Ja San’s approach will disproportionally harm farmers. “UNODC does not support eradication without alternative development for the farmers,” said Troels Vester, country manager for UNODC Myanmar.
“There is still much work to be done to address the underlying causes of illicit cultivation. Sustainable results in reducing illicit cultivation can only be achieved when the socio-economic conditions of communities and the livelihoods of rural households have been improved,” Mr Vester said.
Sai Lone of the Myanmar Opium Farmers’ Forum warned that a crackdown on opium could also lead to an increase in the production of amphetamines. A 2009 report by the Transnational Institute refers to this phenomenon as “displacement”, “when the campaign against one drug leads to the rise of an equally or perhaps even more dangerous substitute”.
“They target farmers and lose sight of the whole picture. Lots of people are involved and the problem is not just opium. Over 30 years of eradication did not work,” Sai Lone said.
But previous opium-replacement programs in Myanmar, undertaken by international organisations and China, have also failed to take hold.
Kachin State’s opium farmers were impoverished under China’s 2006 Opium Replacement Fund, which encouraged monocrop cultivation of mainly rubber, according to a 2012 TNI report, which describes it as “morphing what was once known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ into a ‘rubber belt’”. It said the program risked further marginalising opium-growing communities because profits ended up in the pockets of Chinese businesses, not with the farmers.
Some Kachin maintain that – for the moment, at least – Pat Ja San is the community’s best hope, because the government does not do anything to stop the drug trade and its impact on communities, while the authorities are involved in the trade themselves.
“This group did not come up out of nothing. They have been trying to do all these things by legal means but, if you go to the police, they are selling it themselves,” said a Kachin community leader who asked not to be identified.
A week-long stand-off in January between the vigilantes and the authorities, who had first provided the group with protection and then refused to let them continue, only increased rumours about officials’ involvement in the trade.
The case of Pat Ja San ended up in parliament in February, with an urgent proposal to support the anti-narcotics campaigners approved with an overwhelming number of votes.
Later that month, the Kachin vigilantes – while under government protection – were attacked with stones and, reportedly, guns and grenades. Dozens of Pat Ja San volunteers were injured. The Christian anti-drug squad alleged their attackers were members of a pyithu sit, or People’s Militia Force, and the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K), an ethnic armed group that became a Border Guard Force in 2009.
According to Rev Hkalam, land near the Chinese border that is controlled by the NDA-K is rented out to Chinese business-owners who then hire day labourers to grow poppy on the fields.
Aid organisations working in Kachin State said the ownership of the poppy fields that Pat Ja San aimed to destroy was mixed. In some places, Chinese businesses hired local workers, and in other areas local farmers grow opium and then sell it, mostly to Chinese buyers.
Most opium fields in Myanmar’s Kachin and Shan states are located in areas where government-allied militias operate. The government turns a blind eye to their involvement in the narcotics trade in return for their help to fight against the country’s plethora of ethnic armed groups.
While the farmers struggle under harsh eradication campaigns, leaders or people connected to several government-sponsored militias in Shan and Kachin states were elected to parliament in the November 8 polls, including some heavily implicated in the drugs trade.
“Militia leaders walk around freely and sit in parliament, while opium farmers face eradication and extortion,” said Tom Kramer, a researcher with the Transnational Institute.
U Zahkung Ting Ying, a representative of the NDA-K, which was allegedly involved in the attack on Pat Ja San, is an elected Amyotha Hluttaw representative.
With previous eradication campaigns seemingly futile and targeting mainly impoverished farmers, the exposure of the trade’s bigger players has made Pat Ja San’s anti-drug campaign a success, said a Kachin community leader. “They have achieved their purpose,” he said. “They have shown the world who owns the fields and who is protecting them.”