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Fearless women battling to free Myanmar from methamphetamine

From jungle stakeouts to burning drug dealers’ property, a group of mothers is willing to do whatever it takes to free their community from methamphetamine addiction.

Sister Ester, a Christian ethnic Kachin nurse in her 60s, keeps numerous small plastic bags of colourful methamphetamine – also called meth – tablets beside her bed, along with a pistol and a plastic box of bullets.

“These things were seized by our group in raids on houses selling drugs over the past few weeks,” she explains. Sister Ester says she has nowhere else to keep the haul, so “the safest way is to keep them with us until we can destroy them.”

Ester, a nurse and member of Women Pat Jasan, a group that has been fighting the drug problems in their local area since 2012. Photograph: Hkun Lat, Image credit The Guardian

Ester affirms she would sacrifice her own life to eliminate the crisis which is destroying so many lives in her remote town in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state, on the border with China.

Ester also leads an anti-drug movement called “Hkam Sha Hpung” which from the Kachin language means “those who can’t stand the situation”. The group calls itself “group of mothers” in Burmese and aims to provide healthcare to the people of Mone Paw village in Muse township.

Mone Paw village is based in an area that for a long time was controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) until the 17-year armistice between the group and Myanmar’s military broke down in 2011.

After the warfare between a patchwork of militias broke out across Shan state, the area has since then become the core of the global methamphetamine trade. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that meth made in labs in south-east Asia could be worth more than $60bn (£48bn) a year and that much of it comes from Shan State.

Foreign military attachés gather on a football ground where seized drugs were displayed in Kawnghka at Shan State on Friday. Image credit AFP Photo

Traditionally, the local economy is based on farming of maize and rice crops which are sold to Chinese negotiators. But with the escalating fighting in recent years, the agricultural trade has been eclipsed by methamphetamine production.

“The drug problem is growing faster and faster,” says Ester.

Adding to this situation there is the booming market for synthetic drugs and heroin. According to the UNODC, Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, with poppy cultivation centred in Shan.

Back in 2012, Ester affirms that most of the men in Mone Paw village – which has a population of almost 3,000 people – used drugs. Her husband was one of them.

“I tried so hard to help him out. I even tried to lock him in a room for some days. Unfortunately, I failed to help,” she cries.

The couple divorced in 2012. Afterwards, Ester formed the anti-drug group, initiating an informal movement in cooperation with other women that live in the same village.

Some of the men in the village chose to join the armed groups, while others went away to work in China. With the police, the military and rebel armed groups among local authorities involved in the drugs industry, the women in the village felt they needed to fill the gap.

Image credit Anadolu Agency

Lashi Htan, the group’s vice-chair, was one of the first to join the movement. Two of her three sons were drug users at the time.

“We were heartbroken to see the ones we love become drug addicts. It brought us together, to some extent,” she declares.

Initially, the group helped only their families. “We chained them up and locked them in a room for weeks. We provided them with healthcare and faith healing,” Htan says, referring to their method of treatment, which involves surrounding recovering users with prayer and religious songs.

“Thank God, my sons are not in hell, but are working in China now,” she states.

After a decade the group now covers 22 villages. It conducts surprise checks on vehicles passing through the area, and raids dealers’ houses. The women issue fines, and the money supports the group’s operations.

“If they refuse to pay the fine, we destroy their property by burning it,” Htan says.

Armed groups in the area support the women with security and information about drug production in areas controlled by rivals. The Myanmar military, for example, gives them news about drug production in areas controlled by the KIA, and vice versa.

The women say that this is the only way to help their people on their mission to eradicate drugs. “We need to have good relations with armed groups for our safety,” admits Ester.

Threats, however, are commonplace. Recently, a bomb was left outside the front door of Ester’s home. It was defused by the Mone Paw Militia, who are aligned with Myanmar’s military. Ester suspected it might have been connected to a KIA member whose house the group had set on fire.

The government-appointed administrator of Mone Paw village says local authorities and armed groups face limitations in enforcing the law. For example, government troops are not able to access rebel-held territory.

“But the ‘Women Pat Jasan’ group can do it freely. They go wherever they want to go,” he says over the phone. The group is informally referred to by this name because they are believed to have inspired the Christian anti-drug movement Pat Jasan, whose strict methods in Kachin State have drawn disapproval.

This photo shows Myanmar law enforcement authorities burning seized illegal drugs worth US$187 million, marking the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Yangon on 26 June, 2018. Image credit Ye Aung Thu, AFP Photo

In early 2014, the Kachin Baptist Church invited Ester and her group to share their experiences in several towns, including the state capital Myitkyina. A few months later, Pat Jasan was formed. It has since become the largest civilian anti-drug campaign in Myanmar. Its methods include arresting and beating drug users, forcing them into treatment camps and sending teams out to destroy poppy fields of subsistence farmers.

Even if these groups might appear controversial, they reveal the general misery in communities that feel the government is failing them.

Myanmar’s President Win Myint has formed an anti-narcotics task force. Corruption is predominant, with media uncovering systemic bribe-taking by lawyers and police.

Up to 70% of criminals in Myanmar’s prisons are believed to have been convicted of drug-related offences, yet police raids on meth labs rarely result in arrests, and kingpins like Tse Chi Lop, dubbed “Asia’s El Chapo”, remain huge.

Ester reinforces the fact that her group has a vital role. It keeps a relationship with local authorities, even using rooms at the police station to rehabilitate drug users.

In 2015, La Twang, the group’s chair, became the first man to join the group. He was, he says, “amazed by these women”.

“They work very hard and they’re fearless,” he states.

Mostly in their 40s and 50s, the women don’t hesitate to spend entire nights in the jungle to catch drug traffickers, he adds. But, he says, there’s no other option left.

“The drug problem is huge here. I don’t know when and if this will ever be a drug-free area. It may take decades or centuries. But for now, it is destroying everything we have. It makes our culture fade away, our young generation loses their future,” he confesses.


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