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In Myanmar's Opium-Rich Shan State, Addicts Without Options

Addiction in Myanmar’s Opium-Growing Region
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VIDEO: Addiction In Myanmar’s Opium-Growing Region

Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar's young people could fall prey to addiction amid dearth of services and a market awash with drugs.

Phone Myint Han has been addicted to opium for eight years. The 26-year-old Myanmarese once attempted to come clean at a state-run facility, one of the few options available to addicts here. But he found little help in the place where addicts were seen as criminals rather than patients.

“It is like a prison,” the 26-year-old says of the facility, which is based in the township hospital of Taunggyi. “I went there once and I felt that I didn’t have any freedom.”

Failed by government services, Myint Han quickly fell back into a pattern of abuse. He would take a combination of “formula” — a concoction of diluted opium and cough syrup highly popular among young people in Taunggyi — along with methamphetamines and any other substances he could get his hands on.

In Taunggyi, nestled in the hills of Shan State — the second-largest opium producing area in the world — a local U.N. official estimates that 40 percent of young people are using the readily available drug.

But in Taunggyi and other ethnic minority regions, services to support addicts are seemingly non-existent. That means hundreds of thousands of young people could become lost to addiction, casting a long shadow over Myanmar's recent policy successes in other areas.

China Market Fuels Drug Boom

Opium production in Shan State has soared in the past decade, with the vast majority of the crop processed into heroin to feed growing demand in China. Since opium traders are known to use methamphetamine pills, or “yama,” for currency, the area is also awash with cheap uppers.

“I can buy drugs easily,” said Myint Han, a jittery young man with “Skid Row” tattooed on his forearm.

Now doing somewhat better, Myint Han spends most days at a drop-in center run by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, where former and current drug users can get advice, medical care, clean needles and medication to ease the pains of detoxification.

Methadone, however, is not available, and the center is billed only as “harm reduction” clinic.

Some 10-15 patients, mostly young men, come to the center every day to play board games, watch TV or sing along to a guitar. Dr. Than Myo Tun, who runs the center as the UNODC’s township supervisor for Taunggyi, says the facility has registered some 600 clients since opening last September.

His work, he says, barely scrapes the surface of Taunggyi’s drug problem, which, according to his estimates, comprises more than 20,000 addicts in a population of about 300,000.

“There is peer pressure. They want to be modern — cool,” he says. “They use quiet places, or they use it in the teashops as [formula that] just looks like a drink.”

Few of the users here inject drugs, he adds, since heroin is expensive. But in nearby Kachin State and northern Shan State, heroin is more widely available, fueling similar levels of addiction among youth.

'War On Drugs'

Since Myanmar claimed independence in 1948, these particular regions have been wracked by ethnic insurgencies, and many believe the government benefits from the failure of law enforcement to tackle the drug problem.

“People can very easily get these drugs,” said Dr. Myo Tun. “Young people are not interested in politics if they are on drugs.”

Tom Kramer, a researcher at the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute, said although some government officials appear to recognize the problem, Myanmar continues to take a counter-productive “war on drugs” approach that delivers harsh punishments to users without putting services in place for rehabilitation.

“Most of the laws, most of the policies of the government, are about controlling the population rather than providing services,” said Kramer. “There’s still some mentality in the country that laws and regulations and policies are meant to control people, and you don’t see too many policies being made to provide services to people.”

Nan Mo Mo Thidar, secretary of the Myanmar Anti-Narcotics Association in southern Shan State, said that “Methamphetamine is a big problem and it’s getting bigger.”

“It has started to change the culture,” she said. “It is traditional to offer green tea and snacks to anyone who comes into your house. But these days when you go to their place, some people will just have a bowl of yama pills.”

Local attitudes still cast drug users as criminals, making it hard for people to break the cycle of addiction, she said.

For former addict Ko Wai Yan, 25, the difficulty of coming clean is worsened by discrimination. The stigma of being a drug user is difficult to shake, which forces him back to the same drug-using friends.

“I’ve been clean for six months,” he says, “but it’s difficult to give up. When I see my friends using, I can’t control myself.”