World / Social Issues

Hard drug use spreads like wildfire in Myanmar as opium fight falls flat


Every morning, more than 100 heroin and opium addicts descend on the graveyard in this northeastern Myanmar village to get high. When authorities show up, it is for their own quick fix. Soldiers and police roll up the sleeves of their uniforms, seemingly oblivious to passers-by.

Nearby, junkies lean on white tombstones, tossing dirty needles and syringes into the dry, golden grass. Others squat on the ground, sucking on crude pipes made from plastic water bottles.

Along with other opium-growing regions of Myanmar, the village of Nampakta has seen a shocking breakdown of law and order since generals from the former military-run country handed power to a nominally civilian government three years ago.

The drug trade — and addiction — is running wild along the jagged frontier. In this village, roughly half the population uses.

“It’s all in the open now,” Daw Li said at the cemetery, wiping tears from her cheeks. As she stood before the graves of her two oldest sons, both victims of heroin overdoses, she could see addicts using drugs.

“Everyone used to hide in their houses. They’d be secretive,” the 58-year-old widow said. “Now the dealers deal, the junkies shoot up. They couldn’t care less if someone is watching.”

Myanmar was the world’s biggest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, until 2003. The government spent millions on poppy eradication, and drug syndicates began focusing more on manufacturing methamphetamines. But within a few years, poppy production picked up.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the country produced 870 tons of opium last year, a 26 percent increase over 2012 and the highest figure recorded in a decade. During the same period, drug eradication efforts plunged. President Thein Sein’s spokesman, Ye Htut, said the decrease was linked to efforts to forge peace with dozens of ethnic rebel insurgencies that control vast swathes of poppy-growing territory.

Nearly a dozen cease-fire agreements have been signed with various groups, but several insurgencies, including the Shan State Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, continue to hold out. If Thein Sein goes after the rebels’ main source of income, the drug trade, he risks alienating them at a delicate time.

But many opium-growing towns and villages, including Nampakta, are under government control. Here, authorities are in a position to crack down but have chosen not to.

“When I first assumed this post, I said to my bosses, ‘We need to take action to stop drugs,’ ” said a senior official in Nampatka who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “I was told, quite flatly, ‘Mind your own business.’ “

He said every family in the village is now affected: “Half the population of 8,000 uses. It’s not just opium or heroin anymore, but methamphetamines.”

Ye Htut said methamphetamines are currently a bigger problem for Myanmar than opium, with precursor chemicals flooding into the country from neighboring India.

Though the government eradicated only about 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of opium poppies last year, barely half the total of 2012, Ye Htut said he is hopeful future poppy eradication efforts — with the help of the U.S. — will be more successful.

Many residents say they are sick of seeing their community ripped apart by drugs, though growing opium is one of very few ways people can make money in impoverished rural areas such as Nampakta, which have seen little of more than a billion dollars of development aid that has poured into the country.

Daw Li worries that it’s only a matter of time before her youngest son, now 25, follows his brothers to the grave.

“Whenever I see young addicts on the streets, all I can say is: ‘Please, don’t use drugs anymore. Look at me, an old lady who lost two sons. Your parents will also feel so sad, just like me.’ “

The message is lost on those who loiter in the graveyard. The village tallies deaths almost every week. Days before reporters visited the area, four men between 18 and 45 died of drug overdoses.

The body of the youngest was found in the graveyard, draped over a tombstone.