More than 30 antidrug activists were injured Thursday in three attacks by unknown armed assailants in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, as they attempted to destroy opium poppy fields, a local lawmaker, a medical official and an activist said.
Assisted by police, about 26 teams of locals and members of the antidrug, Christian Pat Jasan group were clearing fields in the Kanpaiktee and Sadon areas as part of a poppy eradication campaign unpopular among those who profit from the multibillion-dollar trade, when they were ambushed, said Lagan Zai Jung, a lawmaker representing Kachin state’s Waingmaw constituency.
“Some villagers said they were attacked with landmines along the way,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Some vehicles were damaged. The group was shot at with automatic weapons.”
Attackers armed with guns, machetes, grenades and slingshots, targeted the teams as they made their way to fields near Htan Mo Kham and Sinjiang villages in Waingmaw township, said Lameng Guan Gyar, a Pat Jasan member. The assailants also burned some of the group’s cars.
Of the 30 people wounded, 29 ended up in the hospital, said medical superintendent Aung Ngwe Zan.
Eleven of the 29 are currently in the surgical ward, while the rest are in the orthopedic and emergency wards, he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“One person had wounds in the abdomen, and another on the shoulders,” he said. “How bad they are will be determined soon after checking their ultrasound results. We’ll then decide whether they should undergo operations.”
Tu Raw, a leader of the Pat Jasan group, suggested that the attackers, who used semi-automatic weapons and remote-controlled mines, were government or local militia forces.
“The weapons used in the attacks are those normally used by groups/organizations permitted by the state, and the area is under the control of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s defense forces], border guards and militias. There are no other groups, and so there is no doubt about these weapons.”
The Pat Jasan group, formed two years ago and made up of mostly ethnic Kachin members with ties to the Kachin Baptist Church, received permission to resume its drug eradication campaign in the Waingmaw area on Feb. 23 after a weeklong standoff with state authorities over security concerns.
Farmers, local militias and corrupt government officials who profit from opium and heroin sales oppose the group’s activities.
Myanmar is the world's second-biggest producer of opium after Afghanistan, and most of its poppies, which are used for opium and heroin, are grown in Kachin and Shan states. It is also a producer of methamphetamines commonly sold as yaba tablets.
Antidrug motion passed
Myanmar’s lower house parliament on Thursday passed an emergency motion submitted by Lagan Zai Jung for the government to encourage and support public participation in drug eradication campaigns.
“Parliament has approved the proposal today, and so further steps will come to officially urge the government to take stronger measures,” he said.
Twenty-three lawmakers, including three military members of parliament (MPs), discussed the proposal, despite no-shows by government ministers or their representatives who were supposed to participate in the deliberations.
Among the 13 government ministries invited to attend the session were defense, home affairs, border affairs, agriculture and the investment commission.
Nevertheless, the motion passed with 357 votes for, 10 against, and five abstentions, according to a Myanmar Times report.
While some lawmakers have supported the destruction of opium fields in Kachin state by the antidrug activists, military MPs said the Pat Jasan group was illegitimate because it was not a registered organization.
Lieutenant Colonel Thein Htut, a military lawmaker, said during an early February meeting among residents from Maosetung village, the local tactical commander, police officers, village leaders and representatives of opium eradication teams, the village chiefs made it clear that local residents would accept only organizations that had registered with the government, and that they did not want social or religious groups or self-acclaimed drug eradication teams destroying poppy fields.
“Narcotic drugs like heroin and yaba are being sold openly, as if they were legally approved, in a long row of about 60 huts about only 200 meters (656 feet) from the police station,” Tin Soe, a lawmaker representing Hpakant constituency in Kachin state, told parliament.
The Pat Jasan Group helped with the July 1, 2015, arrest of Daw Kaing from Longin village, who had been trafficking in the area for about three years, he said.
Police seized from her home 300,000 yaba tablets, 415 plastic soapboxes of heroin, 600 penicillin bottles of heroin, 2,300 plastic pipes containing heroin and yaba, two vehicles, and two diaries and notebooks, he said.
“There were many more cases like that,” Tin Soe said.
Making ends meet
But Win Naing, a lawmaker from Mogaung, disagreed, saying that local drug seizures and arrests in parts of Kachin state were insignificant.
“The amount of drugs being seized was disproportionately small compared to the amount being distributed,” he said in parliament. “Among the seizures, there were only eight cases that involved more than one million kyats (U.S. $810) and only six cases that involved less than 10,000 kyats (U.S. $8.11) from which we could say the arrests were very superficial.”
Many villagers have cultivated opium poppies for decades in order to make ends meet, said Saing Gaung Sahein, a lawmaker from Maukme.
“They never made a lot of money, but those with an eye for business took over on a commercial scale,” he said. “These people use modern machinery on a large scale instead of hoes and other small farm implements. They have used modern chemicals and fertilizers to turn it into a big business.”
Lagan Zai Jung, however, said most of the people who work the fields in the Waingmaw area are Chinese with considerable investment potential that allows them to buy farming machinery and install water pipes deep in the jungle to irrigate poppy fields
“Our ethnic people cannot do the production on this scale,” he said. “It seems to be done as a well planned, long-term strategy from their [the Chinese] side.”
Lwin Ko Latt, a lawmaker representing Thanlyin, said the government has a duty to eradicate opium and heroin in the country.
“Destroying these poppy fields to save the country’s image is the responsibility of the government,” he said. “The daily papers said opium cultivation is being done in Waingmaw township which is under government control. Then it must be the negligence of the authorities concerned.”
Pat Jasan has asked the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which will take over as the ruling government party in about a month, for an official policy of support.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt, Kyaw Myo Min, Khin Khin Ei, and Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.