Narcotics use on the rise among youth in Myanmar’s Kachin state following coup

The sale and usage of illegal narcotics by young people have increased significantly in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state in the nearly 16 months since a military coup toppled the elected government, residents and antidrug activists said.

At least two of every five men in all 18 townships of the state of about 1.7 million people (as of the last national census in 2014) consume illicit drugs, mainly heroin from opium, the activists said. Myanmar’s opium production is mainly concentrated in Kachin and Shan states.

There were 11 cases of drug trafficking in Kachin in March, and drugs worth 900 million kyats ($477,000) were seized, according to the most recent figures from the Myanmar Police Force’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control.  

Though technically illegal in Myanmar, opium cultivation for the manufacture of heroin has been tolerated and even taxed by corrupt officials in the Myanmar military, the Myanmar Police Force and rebel ethnic armies.

A resident of Myitkyina district said the number of drug users in his village, which he did not want named for safety reasons, has doubled.

“Following the coup, drugs became available more than ever in Myitkyina,” he said. “Cases have now more than doubled in our village.”

A resident of the town of Mohnyin said that many young people lost their jobs after the February 2021 coup and turned to drugs to compensate.

“If the situation in the country goes on like this, the future will be very bleak,” said the resident who declined to be named. “The situation worsens when there is no law.” 

In 2021, an estimated 30,200 hectares were under opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar, a 2% increase from 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Higher increases in opium yields were observed in Kachin and eastern Shan states, at 17% and 12%, respectively, the UNODC’s 2021 “Myanmar Opium Survey” said.

The situation in Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, is particularly worrisome.

“Drugs are now widespread in Kachin state because they are so easily available,” said an official with a Myitkyina-based civil society group who requested anonymity. “It will be very difficult to control. At present, there are few public activities unlike in the past because traveling from one place to another is difficult. People are worried they might get arrested on suspicion alone.”  

Youths under the age of 18 are now using drugs, and most of them are addicted to heroin, leading to an uptick in crime in Myitkyina, he said.

In the past, community-based antidrug groups set up operations in all parts of the state to track down drug users and traffickers in villages and send them to detention centers or to rehabilitation facilities, according to the official.

About 30 self-help antidrug training facilities run by Christian and private groups operate in Myitkyina, and each one is looking after nearly 100 addicts, he said.

‘More and more drugs’

A spokesman from an antidrug group based in Putao said that the town, previously classified as a white zone because there were no drug users, is now off the list.

“Every village around here has more and more drugs,” he told RFA. “Drug use has risen in the past two or three months, and the crime rate is going up. Religious teachers and village elders are stepping in to take control of the situation now. We cannot even go to church in peace here. Someone has to stay behind to guard the houses.”

 About 1,000 drug addicts live in Putao, about half of them women, he added.

Drug trafficking is also on the rise with dealers contacting various homes in the area for sales and others openly selling narcotics on the street.

Win Ye Tun, a spokesman for the Kachin State Military Council, said the junta regime was working on drug prevention and rehabilitation.

“We are trying to stop drug trafficking,” he said. “We make arrests and take action against them [users]. We also have another program to educate these people not to use drugs again. We have opened training camps and drug eradication camps. We did that all along. The government is always behind it.”

Tan Raw, who runs an antidrug youth training school in Myitkyina, said the lives of most young people in Kachin have been ruined by the military coup and its bloody aftermath.

“Right now, the authorities cannot think of this drug trafficking as an issue,” he said. “That makes it worse. As a consequence, crime rates are rising, too.“

“Most importantly, we have lost the country’s valuable human resources,” said Tan Raw. “Therefore, I think it would be very difficult for us to rebuild our country, even if the political [situation] stabilized.”

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane for RFA Burmese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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