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Poppies and Pain


The 12-Step Program in Myanmar (formerly Burma)

Drugs have wrought havoc in Kachin State. Despite over 50 years of on-going warfare for independence from Myanmar, more Kachin people have died from drug-related problems than from the armed conflict.

Columban Sr. Mary Ita O'Brien explains how the Diocese of Myitkyina is addressing addiction through the 12- Step Program.

Poppies and Pain

The Kachin State is the northernmost state of Myanmar. It is a land of beautiful mountain ranges where the rivers Malika and Maika are born and together form the worldfamous Irrawaddy River.

Bordering China, it is home to around 1.2 million people including migrant workers who work in the gold and jade mines. It is rich in resources such as timber from tropical forests that produce teak and other valuable timber. The resource rich Kachin State also produces sugar cane, rice, gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, amber, jade crystal and coal.

In the rural parts of Kachin State, small-scale poppy production occurs. The use of opium for medicinal and recreational purposes has a long tradition. However, in the 1970s the cultivation of opium increased as more people began to use it. As demand grew, the sale of opium became more lucrative and slowly poppies replaced other crops.

Heroin, the processed form of opium, replaced the traditional raw black opium. The injected form of heroin is more dangerous and addictive, but it is cheaper and easier to use. What had been an herbal substance mostly used by adult males was now available to young people and women.

Later yaba/yama—an amphetamine-type stimulant— was developed, and because it was affordable and available it was popular with students, migrant workers, fi eld laborers and those involved in human trafficking.

There is a heroin epidemic today in Kachin State especially among young people, and the consequences are devastating for families, local villages and towns. Injecting heroin is one of the main causes of the spread of HIV. More Kachin people have died from drug-related problems than from armed conflict as the number of users has increased radically over the years since the most recent outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Beginning in 2009, the Program for the Chemically Dependent (PCD) was spearheaded by Fr. Leo Gopal, Peter Nlam Hkun Awng and myself. It was encouraged by the Bishop of Myitkyina, Francis Daw Tang. Originally the team leader, Hkun Awng, trained staff to carry out research on the devastating consequences of this drug epidemic around Myitkyina parish.

In response to the terrible findings, intensive awareness programs were undertaken in the diocese. As the situation deteriorated, we realized that an effective treatment center was needed, and our staff needed professional training, experience and preparation for running the 12-Step Program.

By 2014 our staff had undergone the necessary training and were back in Myitkyina ready to begin. At the same time, the Kachin state anti-drugs program was launched in every village and town. In collaboration with the diocesan anti-drugs committee, the PCD staff launched their first program at the Rebirth Rehabilitation Center, which opened in 2015 in Myitkyina Diocese. It caters to those who are chemically dependent and offers the 12-Step Program. The need is great, but only a limited number can be facilitated on each program. The 12- Step Program is new in Myanmar and few understand the process.

Despite over 50 years of on-going warfare for independence from Myanmar, more Kachin people have died from drug-related problems than from the armed conflict.

Recently I met two men in Yangon who had completed the program in other countries. They run Alcoholics Anonymous style meetings twice a week for a group of five or six people and are ready to help us develop the Myitkyina program. To date, two programs have been completed in Myitkyina, and we are working on a follow-up. We have a very committed staff in the center who are trying their best to plough new furrows in promoting human dignity through compassionate and more effective treatment of the most vulnerable victims of this killer epidemic. One young man shares his experience:

I am 28 years old, the second youngest of seven children in a close family. After graduating from high school in 2005, I went to college. I made new friends there, and we were active in our Catholic Church youth group. I wasn't overly religious but I went to Mass every Sunday and prayed at home in my own family. During my second year, I realized it was very difficult for my family to pay all the expenses so I dropped out of college. I thought if I worked for a year I could earn money and then return to my studies the following year. I went to work in a logging company and there I learned about drugs.

At the logging company, I worked all night. As the days passed I felt very tired. I found my colleagues were very energetic and active. So I asked them how they had so much energy working all night every night. They suggested I take some drugs as they would give me plenty of energy. I did, and it felt very good. So I took either opium or yaba every night when I went to work. After six months, the logging company went out of business. There was no work, and I had become a drug addict.

When I returned to my hometown, it was difficult to get yaba. So I began to use heroin which was easily available and not expensive. From the day I started heroin I had a lot of problems and hardships in my daily life. I needed money all the time. I had problems with my family because I was asking them for money. I felt very sad, stupid and wrong. At night I cried a lot when I was alone.

An episode with the drugs squad, which could have resulted in 17 years in jail, made me turn to God. After this incident I really wanted to change. I needed help but my family didn't believe me. I prayed to God to help me. A friend introduced me to a rehabilitation center not far from my village. There I got the courage to change. During rehabilitation, I realized I needed a greater power than myself in my life; now I know I depend on God each day. I am a recovering addict re-establishing relationships with my family and neighbors. But it is not easy.

Columban Sr. Mary Ita O'Brien has been in Myanmar since 2003.

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