Dozens of Kachin anti-narcotics campaigners were injured after a poppy eradication campaign was met with gunfire and grenades yesterday.
After a week-long stand-off, Pat Ja San reached an agreement with Kachin State authorities to re-launch the eradication mission, despite protests of angry poppy farmers who are just weeks away from harvest season. On February 24, six groups started clearing fields in Sadon and Kan Pai Tee, aiming to uproot as much as 20,000 acres of poppy. However, yesterday the Kachin vigilantes encountered an ethnic armed group defending the crops.
U Tan Gong, one of the Pat Ja San group leaders, told The Myanmar Times that 27 members of the poppy-clearing expedition were seriously wounded and taken to Myitkyina General Hospital after the clashes. Two members later died while receiving medical treatment, according to one Pat Ja San member, while another denied that anyone had been killed.
Volunteers who came to help Pat Ja San were also allegedly attacked, with four cars and tents set on fire. The anti-drug campaigners have retreated to temporary encampments in Waingmaw township.
Following the confrontation, the vigilante group’s leaders demanded an urgent meeting with the state government to find out why the 200 security forces deployed with anti-narcotics campaigners had not provided adequate protection.
According to members of Pat Ja San, the accompanying security forces went ahead to negotiate with the armed group. While discussions were ongoing, the armed forces protecting the fields allegedly ambushed Pat Ja San, lobbing a hand grenade and opening fire. The soldiers and police reportedly did not return fire or assist Pat Ja San until after the skirmish.
“We don’t understand why security forces avoided helping us,” said U Tan Gong. “We are suspicious of them. We demand to hear the government’s reason for the incident.”
During an emergency meeting last night, the state authorities promised to conduct an investigation into the conduct of deployed security forces, including the Border Guard Forces and military, according to U Thu Yaw, a Pat Ja San leader in Myitkyina. Fifteen people involved in launching the attacks have also been arrested, he added.
U Naw Taung, another Pat Ja San leader, said the campaigners are unsure if they will continue poppy eradication plans given the hostile climate. The Kachin State minister for border affairs and security promised last night to hold further discussion on the clearance campaigns.
Pa Ja San members suspect their attackers came from two groups, a militia connected with the Tatmadaw that no one was willing to name, and the former New Democratic Army-Kachin, a splinter faction of the Kachin Independence Army that became a border guard force. The NDAK was led by U Zahkung Ting Ying, now of the border guard, and an elected Amyotha representative.
The local authorities did not respond to repeated requests for comment yesterday.
Kachin locals gathered outside the Mytikina hospital yesterday to protest against the violence. Demonstrators said they do not want a government that fails to protect its people, and vowed to march to the homes of the chief minister and head of the border guard.
Pat Ja San vigilantes previously sought help from the government and the Tatmadaw to pursue their campaigns 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.
Soldiers and police were deployed to block Pat Ja San campaigners last week, due to fears of further violence. As the vigilantes’ ranks swelled to over 2400, the two sides came to an agreement to continue clearance missions with security.
The Christian anti-drug vigilantes – notorious for their militia-inspired hardline tactics – also lobbied the National League for Democracy earlier this week. Pyithu Hluttaw yesterday voted in favour of an emergency proposal to adopt a government policy supporting groups fighting the drug trade.
During a debate of the proposal, no members of the government came forward to explain the situation. Typically, when a proposal related to narcotics is discussed, the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs are invited to provide background to MPs, according to U Hla Moe, an Pyithu MP and secretary of the Hluttaw Rights Committee.
“If the government doesn’t come to the parliament to contextualise and explain, I consider it a sign of disrespect for the parliament, which is formed to represent the people’s interests,” he said.
The president’s spokesperson declined to comment on why the Union ministers abstained from yesterday’s parliamentary debate. The emergency proposal was approved by the lower house.
Additional reporting by Htoo Thant, translation by Thiri Min Htun