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Poppies and Pain

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The poppy fields in Myanmar


As we celebrate 100 years of mission to the world, we find ourselves involved in programs that we couldn't possibly have imagined in 1918! In the early years in China, Columban missionaries faced floods, disease and the Communist revolution. One hundred years later, we face a new adversary in our mission countries—opioid addiction.

Fr. Tim Mulroy
Fr. Tim Mulroy

Columban Sr. Mary Ita O'Brien in the Diocese of Myitkyina (Myanmar, formerly Burma) is addressing addiction through the 12-Step Program. 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.

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 world-famous Irrawaddy River. 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 in the country. 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, field laborers and those involved in human trafficking.

Today there is a heroin epidemic 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. Beginning in 2009, the Program for the Chemically Dependent (PCD) was spearheaded by Columban Sr. Mary Ita and others. In response to the terrible findings, intensive awareness programs were undertaken in the diocese. As the situation deteriorated, they realized that an effective treatment center was needed, and the staff needed professional training, experience and preparation for running the 12-Step Program.

By 2014 the 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.

Recently Sr. Mary Ita met two men in Yangon who had completed the program in other countries. They run AA 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.

For one hundred years, a century, Columban missionaries have answered the call to serve God's people. The needs of the people today are in many ways quite different than they were in 1918, but your steadfast love for our brothers and sisters in Christ remains the same. It is only through the generous partnership of people like you that we have been able to help the poor, the disabled, and the addicted. Thank you for your generous and sacrificial support of Columban mission. We are blessed to continue our work as we begin our second century of service to God.

Thank you for making our lives of communion with God's people possible. You can be assured of a special remembrance in our Masses and prayers.

Gratefully Yours in Christ,

Fr. Tim Mulroy
Director, U.S. Region


About us

Columban logoThe Columbans are a society of missionaries, including priests and lay people, who minister to people of various cultures as a way of witnessing to the universal love of God.

We go in the name of the Church to announce, by deed and word, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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Missionary Society of St. Columban
P.O. Box 10
St, Columbans, NE 68056
Phone: 877-299-1920
Fax: 402-291-4984
email: mission@columban.org