Inside Myanmar's Surprisingly Harsh Heroin Rehab Centers

One person per household uses heroin in Myanmar's most northernly region, and a coalition of religious types have banded together to tackle the problem.

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26 January 2019, 3:00pm

Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, Myanmar's most northernly region, doesn't have it easy. For years it's been plagued by civil war between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Military, as well as poverty and an international trade in opium and heroin. Due to poor employment opportunities and the low price of the drug, many in Kachin have become addicted to heroin, with an estimated one in every household regularly using the drug.

In response to this growing problem, "Pat Jasan" – a coalition of local Baptist, Catholic and Protestant churches – launched a community based organization whose goal is to "eradicate all drugs from the Kachin population". Through a network of camps, Pat Jasan force drug users through a faith-based rehabilitation program. Their "clients" spend three to six months partaking in daily exercise, prayer and educational activities in an attempt to replace their drug addiction with religion. The organization is fully funded by donations from local churches and is manned by volunteers.

Despite the seemingly bright community-based effort to help drug users, Pat Jasan's methods have been criticized as harsh. The group has no legal authority, yet detain people and then lock them in a makeshift "detox room" for two weeks, where they receive no medical attention or care while suffering withdrawal symptoms.

In Myitkyina, local Kachin wash in the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's largest and most important river.

Kachin youth, who have little education or employment opportunities, are very susceptible to falling into drug addiction. Many who work in the infamous local illegal jade mines can also fall victim.

One of Pat Jasan's rehab camps, "The Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre". A group of "clients" sing hymns before morning mass.

Exercise and a game of football is how every day starts for the "clients" of the Catholic-run Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre on the outskirts of Myitkyina.

MG Bawn Hkaw, 23, who has been at the centre for one-and-a-half months helps a visiting Catholic priest give mass to Hkawng Lum, a Pat Jasan client who's been at the centre for two-and-a-half months. Bawn has previously been to two other Pat Jasan camps, but relapsed both times. He started using hard drugs while at high school.

The narcotics epidemic is exacerbated by the close proximity to the war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Government Military, with many militias using the sale of drugs to fund their armies. Support for the KIA is strong among the local population, who feel that Aung San Suu Kyi's government does not pay enough attention to the plight of the Kachin.

One of Pat Jasan's "operations teams", volunteers from the local area committed to the cause of fighting drugs. Their responsibilities include investigating and arresting drug users and dealers, guarding the rehab centers and recapturing escapees. In early 2016, Pat Jasan volunteers entered a days long stand-off with security forces after attacking and destroying opium crops.

The perimeter wall at the New Life In Christ Centre, one of Pat Jasan's rehab centers. When detained by Pat Jasan, "clients" are given the choice of either being handed to the police or attending one of these centers for up to six months.

Two of Pat Jasan's recent arrivals in the "detox room" while withdrawing from heroin. Both have been in for over three days and potentially have a week ahead of them left in the cage. Pat Jasan uses this method with new arrivals to get rid of the physical addiction.

A Pat Jasan "client" whose leg has been put into stocks to prevent him from escaping. He has been using heroin for nine years and is now spending two weeks inside the cell as he comes off the drug, without any medical care being provided.

Although many people praise Pat Jasan's actions for cleaning the streets of Myitkyina of drugs, others say they are only hiding the problem. Many of their clients are caught and return to the rehab centers multiple times.

@davidjshawphoto