Myanmar drug scourge engulfs scenic Puta-o town
Eileen Lui Myanmar Times Fri, January 24, 2020
Climbers walk in the snow-capped Hkakabowrazi mountains. Photo – Seng Hkum
PUTO-O, Myanmar – Puta-O, once too remote to venture to, has seen an influx of tourists in recent months thanks to Christina and Zen Kyi’s movie Now and Ever. Hotels in Puta-o are seeing a surge in occupancy rates, with owners claiming their properties have never been as full for as long as they have been in operation.
But even as they jostle for the perfect Instagram photograph, what the flock of tourists adorned in Paris-Milan fashions do not see beneath the scenery is a growing threat of drug addiction and abuse in the town. Over the last three years, the town has witnessed a worrying spike in the number of drug users, particularly among youths.
Puta-o, the northernmost town of Kachin State and home to the famous Hkakabowrazi snow-capped mountains, has an estimated population of 100,000 people, largely made up of the Lisu, Rvwang, Jingphaw and Shan ethnicities.
A sizable number of the population is addicted to either “black” or “white” drugs. Black is the local name for opium and white for heroin, according to the two drug rehabilitation clinics run by faith-based organisations.
U Sai HteeSaing, a village head on the outskirts of the town, said each of the 46 households in his village, including his own, has at least one drug user. Some of the drug victims are children as young as 12.
He said Puta-o used to be a peaceful and prosperous place but these days, the elders are unable to get their young to help in the farms and fields because of drugs.
How did it come to this?
“How did I start? I started when I was fed with drugs to have energy to keep working in the mines. And now the mines are closed and I’m back here, with no work but plenty of time to do drugs,” said 25-year-old drug user Shang Ah Yung.
Between 2015 to 2016, most of the youths in Puta-o went to places like Tanaing and Hpakant for amber mining as there were few job opportunities in the town.
Worse, many of the addicts are not aware of the effects of drugs.
In 2016 and early 2017, the mines shut down due to escalations of armed conflict in the area. By then, the youths had already been exposed to years of substance abuse.
They said their employers would provide them with drugs to make them “feel powerful” so that they could work harder and longer hours. After the mines shut down, they returned, bringing along with them the deadly habit.
With a shot of heroin costing K3000 (US$2), drug pushers are peddling synthetic drugs like Yaba and ICE for as low as K300 per pop, making it very accessible even to those who have no regular jobs.
Village elders say they are powerless to influence their youth. “We are just menial farmers here trying to earn an honest living by ourselves. We are not educated. We only tell our kids ‘Don’t do it! Don’t do it!’ but we don’t know how else to explain to them the dangers of drug addiction,” said U Sai Htee Saing, whose own son is a former Hpakant miner and now a drug addict.
A trading hub for drugs
Myanmar is a convenient trading hub for drugs, with large areas of opium poppy cultivation and heroin production, increasing methamphetamine production and cross border trafficking. It is one of the major opium producers in the world, accounting for 14 percent of the world’s total opium production, and 20pc of the world’s total cultivation, according to the UNODC.
The country is also one of the largest methamphetamine producers in the world. Geographically, Myanmar lies between two major chemical producing countries – China and India – and is situated in the region of East and Southeast Asia where the drug market is growing. This has made cross-border trafficking of methamphetamine a particularly challenging issue for Myanmar.
Under the current legal regime, drug users are sentenced to imprisonment. Nationwide, 48 percent of Myanmar’s 60,000-80,000 prisoners are detained for drug-related offences, with the percentage of drug-related offenders as high as 70pc to 80pc in some prisons, such as in Myitkyina and Lashio, according to the UNODC.
However, there are weaknesses in law enforcement capacity, and an absence of evidence and data on which to build policy.
Meanwhile, drug dependency is rarely appreciated as a health issue in Myanmar, with drug users in the country facing social stigma, exclusion and limited access to services.
The UNODC said there are 26 major and 47 minor drug treatment centres, as well as 51 methadone maintenance therapy sites in Myanmar. None of these are in Puta-o.
Lack of support
According to Puta-o community steward Dr HtoiYa Sa, there are no NGOs in the town that work on drug prevention or rehabilitation.
Most of the NGOs are focused on HIV prevention, and in doing so, they distribute free syringes. He felt that while this addresses the problem of the spread of HIV, it does not help deal with the cause of drug abuse. Most of these agencies do not want to invest in drug prevention because the results are not immediate unlike other healthcare programmes.
Htoi Ya Sa added that there was also no post-drug rehabilitation for ex-users.
“They feel their life is worthless, they are lost, and because of the stigma surrounding these ex-users, it is easy for them to turn back to their addiction again,” he said.
The doctor sees many gaps and challenges in solving the issue.
“We have laws, but the implementation is weak,” he said. “The drug business is shady and dirty but it is lucrative. Apparently, it is even more lucrative than tourism.”
U Sai Htee Saing said he tried before to approach some of the drug pushers to plead with them to stop selling drugs, but he was threatened and harassed for disturbing their business.
“Nobody in Puta-o is happy anymore. The only happy people are the drug sellers,” said U Sai Htee Saing.
Hard to kick the habit
For now, drug users rely on local clinics to kick the habit, with little success.
At 7.30am outside one of the drug rehab clinics, a group of drug users gathered in sub-zero winter temperatures waiting for their turn to get a daily methadone dose in an attempt to either kick the habit or to lower their addiction. When the clinic opens at 8am, the queue gets longer.
Methadone is an opioid, like heroin or opium, which is being used to treat opioid dependence.
HpanAwng is 22, but he looks much older due to drug use. He strongly feels that the methadone shot will help addicts like him.
“But the drugs are so easy to get! From here to my home, which is only a five-minute ride by motorbike, I pass by several spots that sell drugs,” he said “More often than not, most of us here would stop to buy the drugs instead of making it all the way to the rehab clinic.”
Sarwandee, 32, another drug user, said even though he is employed and married with a wife and three kids, he is unable to kick the habit.
He feels excruciating pain if he is not able to get his hands on heroin. His joints will start aching, feeling as though his limbs are all being pulled apart and he will retch acid. There will be uncontrollable diarrhoea too. At those moments, Sarwandee says he would rather just die.
“I can’t go through three weeks of that,” Sarwandee said. “I tried, but I cannot. And I need the job. So I need to work and I just need to have my injection twice a day.”
‘These people are human too’
U TT, Sarwandee’s employer and owner of a travel agency, said “Sarwan is one of my best employees. I wouldn’t be able to operate my business without him. It is unfortunate that he has this issue.”
Sarwandee had been working with U TT for the past three years, taking care of small details and the nitty-gritty of the business – including the electricity and plumbing. He feels that the only way to help drug users or ex-users get back on their feet is to make sure they are employed and treated well.
“These people are human too, and the only way is to help them, not shun them,” adds U TT.
Eileen Lui is a blogger and entrepreneur based in Myanmar.