After a week-long standoff, Christian anti-narcotic campaigners and Kachin State authorities have reached a deal on a plan to eradicate thousands of acres of poppy fields ahead of harvest season. Members of anti-drug group Pat Ja San will be allowed to proceed on a clearance mission in two sub-townships of the state accompanied by soldiers and police providing security.
Mostly young, Christian and ethnic Kachin, Pat Ja San vigilantes have previously sought help from the government and the Tatmadaw to pursue their campaign against local poppy growers. The officials ceased to provide support and began blocking the missions after farmers responded with deadly force to earlier attempts to destroy their cash crops. A teenage member of Pat Ja San was shot dead while trying to strip fields last month, and on February 3, a clearing team accompanied by soldiers clashed with angry cultivators.
Undeterred by the violence, the ranks of Pat Ja San volunteers swelled in Waingmaw township, where police and soldiers were deployed to halt the clearance mission.
After several rounds of negotiation, the Kachin campaigners and authorities yesterday agreed that poppy clearance will go ahead in Sadon and Kan Pai Tee sub-townships of Waingmaw. Unlike the last, rejected proposal put forward by police, this arrangement is not predicated on authorities checking the targeted fields in advance of Pat Ja San.
Kachin State Police Colonel Chit Oo told The Myanmar Times yesterday that the activist group can go to their targeted areas today and the authorities will prepare an accompanying security team.
“Police, firemen and military troops will go together with the group,” he said after the meeting, held at the Kachin State police department in Myitkyina. “Around 200 troops will go. We will not block them again and we will protect them from danger,especially from armed groups.”
The state security and border affairs minister also attended the meeting and agreed to the terms, he added.
Representatives for the 2400 Pat Ja San members currently camped in Naungmaw village said they plan to divide into six groups to destroy the poppy fields. Pat Ja San says their supporters are driven by anger at the toll taken on Kachin society by the drug epidemic.
Kachin Baptist Convention general secretary Reverend Samson Hkalam welcomed the agreement and said the authorities should be collaborating with the vigilante group instead of blocking its activities.
“I think that the authorities realise the importance of poppy destruction and they understand they need to cooperate with the anti-poppy activists for the good of our country,” he said.
The Christian drug-fighting vigilantes – notorious for their militia-inspired hardline tactics – have also called on the National League for Democracy to get involved. The group asked the party’s lower house MP for Waingmaw, U Lagang Ze Jone, to submit a proposal to parliament in support of the group.
U Thu Yaw, chair of Pat Ja San’s Myitkyina branch, said yesterday that the NLD promised the MP would submit the proposal to the hluttaw today or tomorrow. He added that the group has already reviewed and agreed with the wording of the motion.
“We met with the NLD in Nay Pyi Taw and the proposal will be included in this week’s parliament session,” he said. “They don’t know the date for the discussion yet, but we believe parliament will make the right decision to support poppy destruction.”
U Tun Tun Hein, an NLD spokesperson, said the proposal will “do good” for the people and the country.
Pat Ja San said that they have already destroyed 3000 acres and intend to destroy 20,000 additional acres in the Sadon and Kan Pai Tee areas.
Myanmar continues to be the top producer of opium in Southeast Asia and is second only in the world to Afghanistan. Poppies are produced mostly by subsistence farmers, who, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, survive on money generated from poppy cultivation to stave off food insecurity, debt and poverty.