Church-backed vigilantes fight addiction
KATCHO — Armed with batons and the bible, church-backed vigilantes are taking the fight against northern Myanmar’s heroin epidemic into their own hands - deepening the fallout from a drugs trade already feeding conflict and corruption in the region.
On the leafy banks of the Irrawaddy river, locals from Katcho village in Kachin state tread carefully among abundant evidence of addiction — scores of syringes strewn on the pathway and piled under trees.
“Young people have no future here,” said a local official whose own 18-year-old grandson is hooked on heroin — which in Kachin is among the purest available anywhere in the world.
Addiction has rocketed in this frontier region as Myanmar - which holds a breakthrough general election on 8 November — gets hooked on its own product.
The country is second largest opium producer in the world, only Afghanistan makes more.
In addition to a narcotics crisis, Katcho locals now live in fear of hardline Christian anti-drug organisation, Pat Jasan, after dozens of men in combat-style uniforms recently stormed into town, wielding batons and rounding up drug suspects.
Members of Pat Jasan, who are largely ethnic Kachin, allegedly beat a woman in the Shan majority town.
The raid raised fears of a new layer of community tension in a state already battered by war between government forces and ethnic Kachin rebels.
Conflict in Kachin flared soon after the military handed power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011.
Embattled communities believe there is a plot “to kill Kachin youths with drugs” said Tu Raw, chairman of Pat Jasan’s office in the state capital Myitkyina.
“People are using, injecting and dying,” he told AFP, adding two thirds of his childhood friends had died after becoming hooked on heroin.
The group was founded last year by the powerful Kachin Baptist Church to deliver shock therapy to the drug-addled region.
It now claims 100 000 members and recently began full-scale village raids involving several hundred people wearing camouflage jackets and brandishing bamboo batons.
Tu Raw admitted some Pat Jasan chapters rely on public floggings to punish offenders before taking them to faith-based rehab or the police.
But for Pat Jasan the ends justifies the means.
Their work is fanning out, with Youtube videos doing the rounds of camo-clad men scathing down opium plants.
In Hpakant, a six-hour drive from the state capital, Pat Jasan member Du Lum says drug suspects have two choices: punishment by the police or the group’s “drug destruction team.
“Everyone, including government, knows they are our rules. We destroy drugs by either dissolving them into water or burning them, and punish men with five lashings,” he told AFP.
a Man injects himself with heroin in a village near a jade mine in the township of Hpakant in Kachin state