The following three key messages are from our fieldwork in two borderland Myanmar states: Shan State and Kachin State.
1. Rising levels of drug harm is a defining feature of how people have experienced ceasefires and economic development.
Policymakers often suggest that the key to addressing illicit drug economies lies in reducing levels of armed conflict, strengthening the state and integrating economically and politically ‘marginalised’ regions. This policy narrative is based on the idea that peacebuilding, statebuilding, economic development and counter-narcotics strategies are mutually reinforcing. However, the perspectives of borderland populations in Myanmar frequently challenge these assumptions.
Although ceasefire agreements helped to reduce levels of outright armed conflict in many areas, they left populations vulnerable to the ‘slow violence’ of drug misuse. Indeed, people from across Kachin and Shan express concern that drug-related harms have grown in the wake of the ceasefires and associated economic development. This is echoed in the reflections of two elderly men on how their hometown of Chipwi, in northeast Kachin State, changed after the signing of the KIA ceasefire in 1994.
When I settled down in Chipwi in 1973, I heard that there was opium available but I had never seen it with my own eyes. That time, I did not come across drug addicts. I had not heard about heroin and yaba in the area. After the ceasefire, the Asia World Company came into the area, then road construction started, then the logging started in the area. The heroin started coming in when the area became more populated. Then the local youth started using different kinds of drugs. Many young people started shooting heroin. Many young people passed away because of drugs.Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018
Since the ceasefire period the Chinese came in, people could move around more easily, and drugs started flooding in. Yes, the ceasefire was a good thing but since the ceasefire, drugs became more available. I see it that way. In the past, opium was meant only for elderly people. My uncle on my father’s side used opium for 50 years […] Now young people use drugs in different ways – injecting, inhaling. Just last night a young man died of his drug addiction in this village. I am planning to go to the funeral. He was just 30 years old.Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018
People across Shan State also made associations between the ceasefires and an apparent growth in illicit drug production and consumption in their area. This is reflected in the account that follows of how the situation changed under the Pa-O ceasefire in southern Shan State.
In the past, there were a few poppy plantations in some of the villages around Taunggyi, in Pinlaung and Hsihseng. However, the ceasefire deals allowed the ceasefire and militia groups to control certain territories […] Since these regions are under their control, poppy plantations and drugs were allowed without any restrictions. Since taxes are imposed on the local farmers for their crops and land, people would grow poppies since they can earn more money more quickly compared to other regular crops. Then the spread of drugs also increased.Local politician, Taunggyi, Shan State, 2019
Mining (for gold, amber, rare earths and other minerals), logging, and large-scale agribusiness operations expanded across northern Myanmar from the 1990s onwards. The association between these forms of economic development and worsening drug harms was a common theme in many interviews. The reflections of a young man working in the amber mines in Danai – a resource-rich and conflict-affected town in the western part of Kachin State – capture this clearly.
In the amber mines, many miners used drugs. I started using drug since the nature of work in the mine was so tiresome. When I inhaled the drug I became so energetic. I used heroin, yaba and the like. It depended on how much money I made. Over time I saw more and more amber miners become drug addicts. Here many people perished due to drug use. Here it is difficult to get opium. But heroin and yaba can be found easily. Many miners ruined their lives due to the nature of the mining work.Miner, Danai Township, Kachin State, 2018
The link between drugs and extractive industries is not new: problematic drug use had long existed in the infamous Hpakant jade mines in Kachin State. However, extractive industries expanded significantly in Kachin State over the last few decades due to the stability created by the ceasefires and the country opening up for trade and investment.
This led to improved road connections, the emergence of various boom towns and a surge in cash circulation, which in turn facilitated and contributed to more widespread drug use. A resident of a village along the Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina Township offered his observations on the links between drugs and development.
In the past there were some drug users in the village. But it became worse when government allowed Chinese businessmen to do gold mining along the riverbank. They spread drugs as they wished to. They employed villagers as daily labourers. At that time, the pay was just 500 kyats per day. Only after working for ten days we could earn 5,000 kyats. It wasn’t much…
But the new gold businesses gave per month 60,000 kyats […] They worked along the riverbank with machines. If they did not use big machines we could still do small-scale gold sluicing. But they just took away whatever they could manage to with their machines. They worked here until 2006 and destroyed everything. They did destroy not just the environment and land; they also destroyed the village community […] So many young people started working, and opium was offered for free.Local resident, Myitkyina Township, 2018
Whereas people in Kachin State see heroin use as the primary cause of concern, the majority of people interviewed throughout Shan State saw methamphetamines (‘yaba’) as the most pressing drug issue in their communities. People say that yaba gives users more energy and resilience to work long hours in exhausting jobs. Methamphetamine use has consequently become deeply embedded in working culture in manual and low-skilled sectors, as shown by the reflections of one lady interviewed in Hsipaw, northern Shan State.
My husband always uses drugs when he goes to work. The boss said if they [the workers] use drugs they can work really hard. When I’ve gone to sell the oranges, the dealers sell pills like it’s a normal market. Everybody can buy them easily.Farmer, Hsipaw Township, northern Shan State, 2018
People who sell drugs target wage labourers because they have expendable income. A number of interviewees also stated that business owners in the mining, logging and agricultural plantation sectors encourage and facilitate drug use amongst their employees so that they can work harder and for longer. This is shown by a Christian pastor’s comments that follow about drug use in Kengtung Township, eastern Shan State.
The owners of the plantations hire workers to tend their crops by paying both money and yaba. If this wasn’t happening, there would only be a few workers who would want to work for them, and the workload of tending the crops would not be finished on time. So, what the employers do is they put yaba in the cans of soft drinks and treat their workers with those soft drinks. Now, the workers do not dare take the soft drinks and water from the plantation’s owner, they bring their own water.Christian pastor, Kengtung Township, eastern Shan State, 2019
Many other testimonies highlight how business owners provide drugs as a way to attract and retain workers in light of growing levels of drug dependency. One worker in Loilem Township, southern Shan State offered his reflections on this practice and its impact on workers’ families in the testimony that follows.
The owner of the mining business gave yaba pills to the stone workers, saying the drugs can make them stronger and healthier. In this way, those workers became addicted to drugs. This is the beginning of drug-related problems amongst the families of those workers. Sometimes they cannot even hire workers if they cannot provide them with drugs…
In the beginning, the workers are provided with one or two pills, but later when they become addicted, they buy the drugs with all the money they make each day, leaving their families unprovided for.Miner, Loilem Township, southern Shan State, 2018
The link between drugs and the security and authority structures that have accompanied wider economic changes and growing state presence in borderland regions under the ceasefires is also important. This will be dealt with more fully in later outputs from our project.
Army-backed militias (typically called pyithusit which translates as ‘people’s militias’) have been deployed as counter-insurgency forces to police local populations and secure sites for economic development. In return, these militias have unofficial permission to run legal and illegal enterprises. This link between drugs and militias is captured in the following testimony of a man in his sixties reflecting on the changes he witnessed in eastern Shan State over the past 20 years.
Businessmen could produce drugs freely because of ‘pyithusit’ [people’s militias]. They produce in areas under control of ‘pyithusit’, but ‘pyithusit’ is backed by the army […] The militia has its people and their families and they want to develop their area, so they have to earn money. That’s why they cooperated with businessmen. We say that drug traffickers can ‘pass through’ militia. They pay taxes to militia so the militia protects them […] From my point of view, as long as there are militia groups, drugs cannot disappear.Resident of Tachiliek, eastern Shan State, 2019
A 48-year-old mother also reflected on how drug use has impacted her village in Lashio Township, a militia-controlled area of northern Shan State.
The militia group holds everything in our village. There are plenty of people who become rich because of selling drugs. Some sell amphetamine and construct a big house. I have five sons. Most of them went to China. The one who has bad legs is left at home. Because we fear they will become addicts, my sons and many villagers go to work in China. They will become drug users if they stay in the village. The government never comes to arrest the people who use drugs and the sellers.Farmer, Lashio Township, northern Shan State, 2018
These brief testimonies provide important insights into people’s everyday experiences of economic ‘development’ and political authority in the 1990s and 2000s under the ceasefires. They demonstrate the need for sensitivity in our understanding of the ways in which ceasefires are perceived at a popular level across Kachin State and Shan State, and how these perceptions shape civil society discussions about potential solutions to the harms caused by drugs and the perceived barriers to realising those changes.
2. Opium production is essential to the livelihoods of many poor households. But changing patterns of drug use are creating new forms of vulnerability and poverty.
Much of the focus of the international community working on drug issues in Myanmar continues to be on stemming opiate production and trafficking to foreign markets. However, many communities throughout Myanmar’s borderlands view rising rates of harmful heroin and methamphetamine use as a more pressing issue than levels of opium cultivation.
Populations in poppy-growing areas often associate opium with various positive impacts. Opium poppy cultivation provides a reliable source of income and thus improved food security. It also generates cash to pay for services such as education and health. And opium itself is used for the treatment of various ailments. In contrast, populations throughout Kachin State and Shan State view rising heroin and methamphetamine use as having a more dramatic and unmanageable impact on society than opium. This is captured clearly in the reflections of a local administrator from Lashio about how the drug situation has changed from the time of his youth in the 1960s to the present day.
When we were young, opium was very important. The one who used opium was rich at that time. Relatives and friends always asked how much opium do you have? If we had a lot, it meant we were rich. In the past, people who used drugs went to bed late but got up early to get to work and did well […] They could work in the field the whole day without resting, if they got enough opium. To use WY [methamphetamine] is easier than opium…
People used to pay 5,000 kyats for a pill. Only some people used it. But now, 500 kyats gets three pills, so everyone can afford to buy it. There are more drug addicts now. Some drug addicts were sent away to escape from this kind of environment. Some were sent away for more than 10 years but when they got back home, they used it again. Before, drugs were only in downtown but now you can find them in every village and town.Local administrator, Lashio, northern Shan State, 2018
These sentiments were also common throughout Kachin State, shown in the following testimony from an elderly man in Chipwi.
In the past, though the opium users used opium they still worked, the opium use even helped them to do more work. But now we see drug users injecting drugs. Since needles and syringes are easily available, kids start using drugs […] Different types of drug are flooding into Chipwi area, and in the future, I foresee that the drug addiction problem will be even worse.Elderly resident, Chipwi, northeast Kachin State, 2018
These changing patterns of drug use have become an important, albeit often overlooked, dimension of the poverty and vulnerability experienced by many households across Kachin State and Shan State. Approximately one in three people in these states live below the national poverty line. The material, physical and emotional impacts of harmful drug use have been significant for many families already struggling with poverty, and in ways that often have specific gendered dimensions. These include the extra costs that families incur because of drug use, as discussed by a woman in her thirties from Kengtung in eastern Shan State.
I’m the first of five siblings and the only woman. The rest are men. The brother after me took many drugs. My second brother injected heroin and became addicted. I asked my friend to send him to Loi Tai Leng [The headquarters of the Shan State Army/Restoration Council of Shan State]. We found out he has HIV and needs to take medicine…
While my brothers were using drugs, my father and I were the only breadwinners. My two younger brothers were still in school. At that time, my two brothers who used drugs often stole property such as motorbikes. I had to pay compensation whenever my brothers stole from others. I only had a small salary. After I paid the compensation sometimes there was nothing to eat at my house.Civil society organisation worker, Kengtung, eastern Shan State, 2019
Drug use can also cause loss of income as family members become too incapacitated to work, wages are spent on drugs and/or because assets are sold to buy drugs. These issues are clearly illustrated in the following testimony from a woman in Namtu Township in northern Shan State.
Drugs destroyed our family, I really don’t like it, we will never be successful. Even if we have a car or valuable things, there will be nothing left. Even if we have just 1kg or 2kg of rice, he [my husband] exchanges it for drugs. He started [taking drugs] when our first son had just passed away, he was sad. His friends gave him drugs. He told me that if he used it, it could make him better. I told him not to use because we didn’t have money like other people. We have now been married for 14 or 15 years but our lives haven’t improved…
He went to the Loi army [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] to quit for one year. When he came back home, he was heavier and more handsome but after he went out with his friends, he used it again. When he tried to work, he got pains in his stomach, so he came back home and asked me for money for drugs and rested. He even pledged the title deed [for the house] for 60,000 kyats. He did work at the farm for 15 days but only gave 300 kyats [US$ 0.20] for his daughter. I want him to be a good person and work like other people and improve our family, but he doesn’t.Farmer, Namtu Township, northern Shan State, 2018
A Kachin farmer from Mogaung Township also discussed how drug use can erode family relationships and undermine the support networks that are important for households going through tough times, in the following testimony.
It has been 20 years I have been using opium. I was 18 years old that time. I started using heroin four or five years ago. I got married when I was 36 years old. My wife put up with me for some time when she knew that I was a drug addict. I had two children with her. When we were newly married I stopped using for a while. But the situation got worse. I have been to rehab centres in Yangon. I also went to rehab centres in the KIO-controlled area. But my family just splintered…
Since I became a drug addict my wife left for a foreign country. My children are now living with my paternal aunt…So my life became meaningless. After that I started using heroin again. I leased our cow and with the money I used drugs. My siblings also said that as long as I am a drug addict they will no longer accept me. I only have my aunt caring for me. She is the one looking after my children. She is living on government pension. In the past I was quite depressed and would even think of committing suicide.Farmer, Mogaung Township, Kachin State, 2018
Worsening levels of drug use are also perceived to have undermined community solidarity and mutual support mechanisms that in the past assisted households during times of need or in managing the costs of certain events such as weddings and funerals. A Pa-O civil society organisation leader described this situation in the interview that follows.
All villages have their own rules, you know, rules to follow. In my village all young people must do social service in the community. If you are 16 or finished school you have to automatically become a member of the village social work group. So in that group we have rules, and if you do not follow the rules we won’t help you…
If you get married we are not going to help you, for your wedding, something like that. These rules also try to stop young people using drugs. According to that rule, if you use drugs you have to leave the village […] They try to control the situation like this. But now the situation is very difficult to control. In some villages most of the young people use drugs. We have the rule but the rule is broken.Civil society organisation leader, Taungyyi Township, southern Shan State, 2018
Harmful drug use had been seen as an issue confined to sectors of the population in certain risk areas, for example, male labourers in mining areas. But people now perceive it as a part of everyday life affecting a wide cross-section of society, including women and children. This was a common narrative in countless interviews. The comments made by a community leader from Mong Pan in southern Shan State illustrate this.
Nowadays, yaba can be found everywhere. Before the price of a pill of yaba here was 1,800 kyats. Now, three or four pills can be bought with 1,000 kyats. Normally, a poor student would have pocket money of between 200 and 500 kyats while those from a wealthy family may have something between 500 and 1,000 kyats. The son of a teacher from 8th grade became addicted and his parents have been so heartbroken because of it. That boy explained that he became a drug addict because he could buy a pill of yaba with just 200 kyats.Community leader, Mong Pan Township, southern Shan State, 2018
These testimonies offer insights into how drug use has become an important dimension of poverty and vulnerability across Kachin and Shan State. Thus, interventions aimed at alleviating poverty and livelihood insecurity need to pay greater attention to the impact of drug use. This creates challenges and the need for nuanced responses. In many upland regions, opium cultivation remains essential to the livelihood strategies of many poor households. At the same time, rising levels of drug use, especially heroin and methamphetamines, have placed severe pressures on families and communities.
3. Young people have become particularly vulnerable to drug-related harms.
The impact of drug use on young people is a particular concern throughout Shan and Kachin State. Although hard to quantify, there is a strong sense that young people are disproportionately impacted by drugs and that this will have a significant and damaging impact on society for years to come. Drug use amongst children (sometimes as young as eleven or twelve) and young adults is commonly attributed to a combination of naivety, low levels of education and a lack of knowledge about drugs, and absence of family oversight.
This is especially true if children have to travel to school, are studying at university, or if their parents have migrated to work. Moreover, peer pressure (mostly amongst young men) and ‘youth’s nature’ of wanting to explore and try new things plays a big role. All of these factors are present in an environment where drugs are cheap and easy to access. A Burmese man in his twenties from Taunggyi captured some of these issues, echoing the experiences of many other young people we interviewed.
I was 20, and a tenth standard student, when I started using opium. It is youth’s nature to want to try anything. And like cigarettes and alcohol, it was within reach. It has lasted now for eight years. I drank it mixed with cough syrup. It was known as ‘Formula’. At first, it was only once in a while. Later I began to use it every day…
The feeling was strong and made me feel dizzy at first. But it was still pleasant, unlike getting drunk with alcohol. As it went on, it became a burden economically and socially. So I decided to quit. For the first week, I was delirious. When I went to the private clinic the detox medication there wasn’t strong enough. So I went back using. Then I went to a different clinic. Still, I went back to using drugs again.Resident of Taunggyi Township, southern Shan State, 2018
Many interviews draw attention to the ease with which young people can access drugs, compared to the difficulty of accessing support. This is especially true outside of major cities like Taunggyi, where access to treatment is very limited. Families’ desperation, coupled with the lack of education and services, has exposed young people to further harms. A worker at a drug treatment centre in Tachilek described the situation of some patients arriving from rural areas in the following interview.
Their addiction was so serious that in some of the cases, their parents would tie them up before they could seek […] help from the authorities, whom they have no idea where and how to approach. Finally, they found their way to us and got the patient admitted to our rehabilitation centre. Once they get here, you could even see the infections from the wounds that they got from being tied around wrists and hands.Drug treatment centre worker, Tachiliek, eastern Shan State, 2019
Schools and universities have become common sites for drug use, which has magnified associated harms among young people in particular. In the following testimony, a man who started using heroin whilst studying at Monyin University described the drug situation on campus.
Drug use in the university campus became so serious around 2005. You would find used syringes and needles scattered around toilets and bushes at the back of the university campus. You see the rear side of the campus…
Heroin is freely available, but not always. Some days you will find a crowd assembled there. The campus has become a favourite spot for drug dealers as well. Some dealers came to sell by motorbike from a far place. They put heroin in a plastic straw. You can get it for 1,000 or 2,000 kyats.Monyin University alumni, Kachin State, 2018
Young people from rural areas often travel long distances each day to attend school and university or live in boarding houses during term time. This has become increasingly common since the ceasefires, as declining levels of armed conflict improved mobility. As a result, more young people were able to access education, but also experienced greater exposure to illicit drugs. This is just one of a number of reasons why people express frustration and resentment about the legacy of the ceasefires.
Drug use amongst young people is often attributed to their inability to control themselves, to overcome temptation, or to act responsibly. These narratives commonly have strong religious connotations, and are also often internalised by those who use drugs and blame their addiction on their own perceived weaknesses, or a weakness they believe they have inherited. A Shan man in his twenties offered insights into attitudes surrounding drugs.
I started using ‘Formula’ in 2010. I wasn’t successful in my work, I despaired and wanted to forget everything. Alcohol failed to help me. Then a new friend said, ‘Try this’, and I did. My parents brought a doctor to do a check-up. And he informed them that I had become a ‘junkie’…
So I tried to quit by locking and tying myself up in my room. How many times have I tried to quit, but every time I return to ‘Formula’. You may hate her but you never forget her […] My present work is indoor electric wiring…
When working, I only use a small amount. My employee, looking at my complexion, knows what I am and pays me less than normal. I don’t like it, but I can’t complain. I know I can quit, if I only have the strength. I read a lot of religious books. Still I can’t make myself quit.Resident of Taunggyi, southern Shan State, 2018
However, people’s testimonies also emphasise the need to understand the wider social, political and economic factors that have created an environment in which young people are particularly vulnerable to drug-related harms. They draw attention, for example, to how young people use drugs – and alcohol – as a coping mechanism, in response to the pressures they face. This is particularly true in a society where opportunities do not match aspirations and expectations. The reflections of a youth worker in Taunggyi are instructive in this regard.
Most of the young people who graduated from university don’t have job opportunities. They just go back home. In my community if you already graduated parents believe that you can get a job with the government, a company or with an NGO. If you continue your education in university the cost is very high. But if you go back and do nothing after you graduated people will pressure you…
They say: ‘You already graduated so why don’t you do something like other people?’ ‘Why did we educate them because after they graduated, they are going to work like us?’ It’s a lot of pressure for young people. And also even if you finished university we don’t have any skill for our lives. Education is not very good […] This is a lot of pressure for young people. So some, they use drugs, some also alcohol.Youth worker, Taunggyi, southern Shan State, 2019
This view was also echoed in the following testimony of a Kachin pastor from Monyin.
Young people do not have job opportunities. They have fewer opportunities to work outside the Church and even the Church can’t offer many job opportunities. Look at Monyin, there is only one bank. You cannot find Kachin staff working there. And there are no job opportunities for Kachin youth in the government sector…
Therefore, many young Kachin people turn to drugs. Drug use became more serious here after 2013 when the jade mining was accessible for a short period for the general public, and Monyin became a busy town. Young people could work in the mining sector for a short period and with it many young people turned to drugs.Kachin pastor, Monyin, Kachin State, 2018
The testimonies collected during our research demonstrate that young people face a double vulnerability: they are vulnerable both to the physical and social harms caused by drug use; and they are vulnerable to the harms caused by some of the responses to drugs. These include punishment-based responses and the stigma associated with drug use, both of which often prevent people from seeking help.
This presents a particular challenge for female drug users who remain a largely ‘hidden population’. This is due to the lack of services for women and the greater stigma attached to female drug use. A woman in her early twenties, interviewed in Taunggyi, offered her reflections on how drug use has impacted her life in the following testimony.
I started using ‘Formula’ when I was 19, in second year of university. My mother died and my father remarried. My stepmother and I were not so much different in age. I quarrelled with [my father] and refused to return home even on the holidays. Then my boyfriend said, ‘Here’s the cure for your blues. Drink it!’, and I did. I became hooked. He was caught one and a half years ago and is in jail…
Then I had to start buying the drug myself. I thought about quitting. But, as a woman, it’s difficult to get treatment at a hospital. And I don’t trust the hospital. One of my friends got treatment and when he went back home was arrested. I tried quitting by myself. I suffered so much I felt like dying, getting almost crazy. People are also avoiding me, especially after the arrest of my boyfriend. Eight months after, I visited my boyfriend. He was sentenced to 15 years. He wept and I wept. His family wasn’t happy with me; they blamed me for their son’s plight.Taunggyi resident, southern Shan State, 2018
The key messages presented below draw upon the findings from more than 600 interviews conducted by the research team across Kachin State and Shan State in 2018 and 2019.
Both Shan State and Kachin State are regions of significant ethnic and linguistic diversity. Beyond this territorial definition of ‘Kachin’ and ‘Shan’, however, this project works with organisations who self-identify as being of Kachin and Shan ethnicity (which are themselves complex identity labels). This necessarily creates opportunities, as well as constraints, in relation to how much the research team can carry out research that cuts across the multiple linguistic and ethnic dynamics of these two quite vast areas.
The majority of research conducted by the team has been with Shan-identifying and Kachin-identifying populations. Although some interviews have also been conducted with non-Shan/Kachin and non-Shan/Kachin-speaking populations, it is important to emphasise that the research presented here primarily focuses on revealing the perspectives held by Shan and Kachin-identifying populations within these broad territorial units. In light of how little research has been conducted on these issues from these perspectives, this does, however, represent a significant contribution to knowledge.
The field research has primarily focused on interviewing people who do not self-identify, and who are not identified by others as being political elites, either civil or military. Some respondents may have roles that are clearly politicised or where limited local political authority may be attached to their role. But the research offers in every case a more locally grounded set of critical insights into the kinds of ‘peace’ and ‘development’ that are actually materialising in the country’s borderlands and the ways in which drugs have become entangled in people’s everyday lives.
There is a wide array of important insights emerging from this research which we cannot cover in the space available in this report. Instead, we have focused on highlighting insights that recurred frequently in the interviews, resonated strongly in follow-up workshops with research participants and local audiences, and which the research team view as important in engaging with wider audiences on drug issues in Myanmar.