Groups of stick-wielding church-goers in Myanmar’s northeast used to descend on dealers and addicts in a desperate effort to save their communities from a meth-induced health crisis sweeping the country, but anonymous death threats brought the vigilante operations to a halt.
“It simply became too dangerous for us,” said Zau Man, leader of the Baptist church in Kutkai, a town in Shan State scarred by addiction.
Myanmar is the world’s second-biggest producer of opium after Afghanistan and is believed to be the largest source of methamphetamine.
The multibillion-dollar industry outstrips rivals in Latin America to feed lucrative markets as far away as Sydney, Tokyo and Seoul.
Shan is the epicenter of production in Myanmar, with a network of local armed groups linking up with transnational trafficking gangs.
Kutkai sits between Mandalay and the militia-riddled town of Muse on the China border, a key entry point for precursor chemicals heading to Myanmar’s illegal meth labs.
Trucks carrying illicit goods roar through the town in both directions, past a Chinese temple and street-side restaurants with signs in Mandarin.
Heroin and meth use here is rampant.
Nearly every household has at least one drug user, dealers work out in the open and often-violent meth addicts have turned parts of Kutkai into no-go zones, Zau Man said.
“In some areas, you can only get food until 10pm, but you can get drugs 24/7,” he said.
Myanmar is facing a “public health disaster” because of meth and few villages in the country are left unscathed, UN Office on Drugs and Crime regional representative Jeremy Douglas said.
The crisis is at its most acute in the poppy-covered hills of Shan, where a landscape overrun with armed rebel groups, militias and security forces is an ideal breeding ground for meth labs.
Accurate figures of production of high quality crystal meth, or “ice,” and low-grade meth, known in Southeast Asia as “yaba,” are unavailable.
In January last year, Kutkai police seized 30 million yaba pills, 1,750kg of crystal meth and 500kg of heroin with a domestic value of about US$54 million in the country’s largest-ever drug bust.
Yet huge raids leave street prices unaltered, suggesting they are only a small slice of production, according to the International Crisis Group, which said that the business now “dwarfs” Shan’s formal economy.
Crystal meth is smuggled via sophisticated trafficking networks to more developed markets such as Australia, where it can fetch a wholesale value of more than US$180 million per tonne.
Yaba is distributed to Myanmar’s neighbors, particularly Thailand and Bangladesh, but the pink pills are increasingly being dumped at rock-bottom prices on a domestic market in what Douglas called a “smart and ruthless” strategy to build demand.
“It’s a nasty business and they’re really pushing it out into the population,” he said.
Users and health workers in three different towns in Shan — Lashio, Kutkai and Muse — told reporters that pills go for just 500 kyat (US$0.33).
As the price falls, so does the user age, with reports of children as young as nine taking yaba.
Many miners, long-distance drivers and shift workers mix narcotics — smoking meth to keep them awake, and injecting heroin to bring them down.
Arr San, a gaunt 27-year-old with matted hair, rummages round his roadside shack in Muse and pulls out a bong crafted from a plastic bottle he uses to smoke yaba. He has been hooked since he was 18 and now consumes around five pills a day.
For Arr San, as with many others in the region, there are few opportunities to avoid the cycle of poverty and violence — two years ago he fled his home in a nearby town for fear of being forced into an ethnic armed group.
Narcotics can provide an escape from the often grim reality of life in Shan.
“I take drugs because I get depressed and they help stabilize my mind,” he said.
Arr San is one of 300 heading daily to the local hospital for methadone, a powerful opioid used to wean people off heroin, but the problem is not limited to the poor.
Among Myanmar’s urban elite, addiction to high-grade crystal meth is already taking root.
A UN Office on Drugs and Crime-backed policy launched in February last year champions not penalizing users and treating drugs as a health issue while tackling the trade’s kingpins.
However, the law has yet to catch up — anyone caught with even one yaba pill still faces a minimum of five years behind bars.
It is estimated that about half of Myanmar’s prison inmates are jailed for minor drug offenses and arrests of drug users are rising.
A lack of funding for prevention work and treatment means Myanmar’s meth problem might only get worse.
“I want to go back home and see my mother’s face, but I just can’t,” Arr San said.
“I don’t want to trouble her as I’m so sick,” he added.
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