Burmese military shields opium poppy fields from torch-wielding Christians

by Anna K. Poole
Posted 2/24/16, 08:30 am

For a fifth day, soldiers and police in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are locked in a face-off with hundreds of Christian anti-drug campaigners trying to destroy opium poppy fields. 

On Friday, Burmese authorities halted the Baptist-affiliated activist group, Pat Jasan, as it headed toward a major poppy cultivation site in Sadon-Kambaiti, in northeastern Kachin state on the border with China. 

Pat Jasan is a recently forged anti-drug activist group allied with the Kachin Baptist Convention, the state’s most influential civic institution. Kachin is religiously unique in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, with close to 40 percent of the state’s population claiming Christianity, the legacy of 19th century Baptist missionaries such as Adoniram Judson. 

Burmese police have said they will not provide security for the campaigners, since Pat Jasan is not a registered organization. In recent months, three activists were wounded by land mine explosions and one, a teenage boy, was fatally shot. Despite the string of casualties, Pat Jasan re-started its poppy eradication efforts last month. But with a reputation for donning military gear, flogging drug dealers, and conducting village raids, Pat Jasan isn’t on the friendliest of terms with local authorities.

“Our mission is to contribute to the government’s plan to eliminate poppy plantations and drug problems. Since we received little support from the government, we now only have God to trust in,” Kham Thu Dam Shung, an anti-drug campaigner, told the local Irrawaddy website.  “If they want to arrest us, we don’t care,” he added. 

Myanmar, along with Thailand and Laos, is part of “The Golden Triangle,” a region infamous for drug manufacturing. Second only to Afghanistan in its poppy cultivation, Myanmar sources almost a quarter of the world’s opium supply. 

In 1999, Myanmar’s government launched a campaign to eliminate poppy cultivation by 2015, but that date has come and gone, with a surge rather than a decline in opium manufacturing. Last year, Burmese officials pushed the date to 2019. In recent years, the commercial narcotics trade has exploded, leaving a host of Burmese addicts in its wake. In Kachin, opium is abundant and cheap, and drug use is especially common among youth and migrant workers.

“The region’s demand for heroin remains at unacceptably high levels and transnational [organized] crime groups are making huge profits,” the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2015.

Some accuse Myanmar’s military junta of raking in revenue, but others believe the drug trade flourishes as currency for under-the-table political transactions. In some cases, ethnic minority groups fighting the government finance their efforts through drug profits. In others, the national government turns a blind eye to opium trade in exchange for ethnic militias’ loyalty.

But analysts say clean sweep efforts, like Pat Jasan’s poppy field destruction, won’t fix Myanmar’s drug problem: “Globally, opium cultivation levels have only increased in the last 30 or 40 years despite massive efforts of eradication,” Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute, a Dutch organization reporting on the production and trade of drugs in southeast Asia, told the BBC.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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