Gold miners in Mohnyin district, in Myanmar’s Kachin state, are increasingly spending their wages on drugs to escape the pressures of their high-stress jobs, according to residents who say an informal economy now thrives in support of the illicit trade.
Within Mohnyin, Mine Naung village—the district’s gold mining center—has the highest concentration of drug users. Upon entering the village, one can observe various anti-drug posters, while residents say that it is “easier to count the number of non-addicts” in the area, which they claimed could be “done with the fingers of one hand.”
Nearly one-fifth of Kachin state is being mined for gold on a large scale, bring widespread environmental damage and dramatically altering village life.Wage workers at the gold mine labor from sunrise to sunset for 5,000 kyat (U.S. $4.15)—exactly the cost of one day’s worth of heroin, or “No. 4,” which many of them inject each morning, noon and night.
Mohnyin resident Yein Kaw, who has worked with civil society organizations on area development projects for the last 10 years, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that drug usage had skyrocketed in the district since 2010, and not just among adult gold miners.
“It is very sad to see school age children becoming slaves to drugs and suffering from stunted growth,” he said, adding that previously the effects of drugs were only seen on area youth when they left their parents’ homes and began attending university.
Drug usage in Mine Naung has become so pervasive that some gold mine employers give either heroin or methamphetamines to workers instead of wages, residents said. The employers use this arrangement to maintain leverage over their workers and keep them laboring at the mines.
In addition to heroin and methamphetamines, opium and “khat pon”—a vine coated in heroin residue which users smoke—are also commonly found around the area’s gold mines.
Dealers provide monthly bribes to local authorities to avoid arrest, residents said, and the demand for their drugs remains strong because workers have no other way to counteract the stress they endure during their strenuous shifts in the mines.
Around two years ago, residents of nearby Naing Moon village pooled their funds to open a rehabilitation center called Journey of Kindness, located about five miles (eight kilometers) away from Mine Naung.
The center consists of three dormitories with corrugated iron roofs and canvas walls, an examination room, a dining hall, and an area for doctors and nurses to work.
Two additional dorms are reserved for patients overcoming addiction—one where new arrivals stay for 20 days while they go through withdrawal and a second for those who are trying to stay clean.
Journey of Kindness is temporarily closed because the civil society organization that helps to fund it has been unable to send money.However, Journey of Kindness is temporarily closed because the civil society organization that helps to fund it has been unable to send money.
Khan Hlaing, the 60-year-old president of the center, said that since the epidemic began in Mohnyin, hundreds of people from the district had died from diseases and other complications attributed to drug use and addiction. "Every house in [Naing Moon] village has experienced problems because of this drug use,” he said.
“The sad truth is that you can get drugs anywhere. At this moment … not far from the village, [people park their vehicles along the road] to traffic and consume drugs as if they have licenses to do so. There is also opium everywhere throughout the village.”
In addition to helping rehabilitate users, Journey of Kindness also attempts to disrupt drug networks in the area and make citizen arrests of dealers. But Khan Hlaing said workers at the center are little match for the local drug gangs.
During one such recent raid at a trafficking site in the Mine Naung gold mining area, drug dealers quickly turned the tables on his group of 20 people.
“We managed to seize one backpack full of No. 4 and several million kyats in cash, so they tried to bribe us with [money and drugs], asking us to take it and leave them alone,” Khan Hlaing said. “But we would not accept such bribes … and told them we would report them to the authorities so that action may be taken against them,” he said.
“When we said this, the drug dealers and their henchmen surrounded us and threatened us with sticks and knives, and then they took back all of their stuff.”
Khan Hlaing said he is working to reopen Journey to Kindness and had already compiled a list of young people who have sought rehabilitation. However, he acknowledged that those asking for help make up just a fraction of the thousands of youths who are struggling with addiction in Mohnyin.
Miners at risk
Meanwhile, as the gold mining industry flourishes in Mine Naung, the number of drug addicts in the area continues to grow.
Sixteen-year-old Nay Myo, whose forearms are riddled with needle marks, said that he became addicted to drugs after quitting school and joining his parents’ gold mine.Sixteen-year-old Nay Myo, whose forearms are riddled with needle marks, said that he became addicted to drugs after quitting school and joining his parents’ gold mine, where he learned how to use from other workers.
“Most of the adults sniff [heroin], while most of us young people … use the injection method,” he said.“If we don’t want cash for our daily wages, we can get three injections worth of No. 4 instead. Five thousand kyats is equivalent to three vials of No. 4. That is enough for one day, so we don’t bother with cash.”
The miners feel “ambivalent” about their situation and don’t argue, according to Nay Myo, regardless of what people say to them about their lifestyle.
“My parents have cautioned me two or three times now, but they haven’t been able to do anything, so in the end they just let me be,” he said. “They’ve just left me to my own fate.”
May Nyo said he had tried to kick his drug habit two or three times before, but whenever he meets up with his friends, he goes right back to using. At one point, he was forced to sell his clothes in order to afford his daily fix, he said.
While workers like May Nyo are initially drawn to the mines to save money or to pay for an education, the majority of them end up addicts, earning wages just to pay for their habit.
At the end of the day, it is the drug dealers who benefit from the workers’ hard labor mining gold in Mine Naung.
By RFA's Myanmar Service and Josh Lipes