Opium poppies bloom into spectacular deep shades of cream and maroon in the Kachin hills of Northern Myanmar. Rolling through the small dirt roads are ancient Chinese-made pick up trucks brimming with young men and women, machetes in hand. These are the Pat Ja San, Myanmar’s Christian Opium crusaders. Motivated by their faith and desire to see social change they charge into the mountains supported by local ethnic Kachin Christian militia and Myanmar national armed forces, intent of tearing the poppy fields apart.
Opium rise has slowly been on the increase in Myanmar, particularly in it’s wild Northern mountains, where half a century of civil war has left many pockets of power vacuums. Into the void steps the Pat Ja San, an unlikely alliance of churches, militias and government forces, widely supported by the native ethnic Kachin population. Rehabilitation centres have also started to appear in churches. Treatment is tough, almost medieval and little is done to regulate these independent centres.
Most addicts can be found in localised industrial areas, scattered across the countryside where gold and jade mining offer rare employment opportunities. But the workdays are long and extreme labour is tough. Young men leaving their families fall into a sad cycle ending in addiction.
The Pat Ja San, despite positive intentions, have been accused of a heavy handed and short term approach. They’ve been met with violent resistance from poppy farmers. In January one teenage activist was shot dead and a landmine injured three, while February saw skirmishes break out between The Pat Ja San and an armed group in Wai Maw sub-district.
Myanmar is the worlds second largest heroin exporter. The national government have set themselves a target of eradicating opium by 2019. A target which is highly unlikely to be achieved unless more is done to address the deep routed economic and social issues in which poppies flourish.