'I feel lucky to have come here and had this chance'

Communities in Myanmar have responded in varying ways to the problem of drug abuse. At one rehabilitation centre in Mogok, support and friendship are helping some beat their addiction.

By THOMAS KEAN | FRONTIER

THE LACK of resources in Myanmar’s fight against illicit drugs is acute, particularly when it comes to treating drug abuse disorder. The country is thought to have close to 100,000 injecting drug users – some say the figure could be much higher – but there are barely a dozen state-run rehabilitation centres.

That means communities are often left to deal with the problem on their own. In some areas, that has resulted in extreme solutions. In Kachin State, the vigilante group Pat Jasan has become notorious for the extreme and abusive strategies that it uses to force addicts to give up. While many experts say these forceful techniques tend to be counterproductive, they are also symptomatic of the frustration and hopelessness that many drug-affected communities feel, particularly because of the state’s failure to respond adequately to the problem.

Mogok, a ruby-mining town of more than 100,000 in the mountains of northern Mandalay Region, has its share of drug addiction issues. It’s close to the border with Shan State, where much of the country’s opium and methamphetamines are produced. While the town is secure and relatively prosperous, conflict and poverty are not far away, with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army a looming presence nearby.

As in many areas, people feel that drug use and addiction is on the rise, particularly among the young. One response has been the establishment of rehabilitation centre Alin Eain, which is home to dozens of recovering methamphetamine and heroin users – a mix of religions and ethnicities, including Bamar, Shan, Lisu and Indian.

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When Frontier visited in 2016, residents – or “students”, as the man in charge, Ko Soe Than, called them – were preparing and eating lunch. Those who had already finished were cleaning, or playing guitar or chinlone (cane ball). There was a relaxed and casual atmosphere, despite the seriousness of the addiction that had brought them together.

A Baptist preacher from Mandalay, Soe Than, 30, had taken up the position just a few months earlier. He explained that the centre, which opened in February 2016, is self-supporting; residents (or, normally, their relatives) pay K50,000 a month, and the rest of the running costs are covered by local donors.

Managing a drug rehabilitation centre was not something Soe Than had expected to be doing when he returned from India, where he undertook a bible studies course.

But then his brother began taking drugs. It gave him an insight into the challenges that many families face as a result of substance abuse, and he wanted to do something to help. It also gave him a new insight into and appreciation for addiction. “Because my brother is a drug addict, I have more sympathy, I want to help those who are facing the same problem,” he told Frontier.

Ko Thura Linn, 36, had arrived at Alin Eain only recently. It was the second time he’d seriously tried to give up heroin, which he began taking about 10 years ago. He had once been treated at a state clinic with methadone, but left before finishing the programme and returned to heroin.

He expected to spend another three months at Alin Eain, after which he wanted to return to work at his family’s construction business.

At the hospital, he said, he lacked the support he needed to get clean. “At the hospital it’s really strict, everything is according to a timetable. Here it feels like you’re with family. We can play football when we want, if we want to go and buy a snack we can do it,” he said.

A staff member at the Alin Eain rehabilitation centre in Mogok. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

A staff member at the Alin Eain rehabilitation centre in Mogok. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

Ko Yan Myo Naing, 21, had been clean for four months and hoped to leave Alin Eain in the coming weeks.

He began taking heroin at 17, shortly after completing high school in nearby Pyin Oo Lwin. It was mostly boredom, he said; with few good jobs available, he and his friends suddenly found themselves with plenty of free time. “We started out drinking. Then we took yama [methamphetamine pills] and moved on to heroin,” he said. “It was like a virus – one of us started using it, then another.”

He came to Alin Eain at his mother’s request. The hardest thing about giving up, he said, is finding the mental strength to endure the withdrawal symptoms. “It’s hard to handle the suffering, but as long as you have discipline it’s possible. Controlling your mind is the biggest challenge.”

At Alin Eain, that discipline is found not through regimented schedules or the threat of punishment, but the company of others who are facing the same challenge.

“Basically we support each other, that’s the good thing about it,” Yan Myo Naing said. “It’s all about love – people are very warm and trying to watch each other’s back … I feel lucky to have come here and had this chance.”

Not all those who come to Alin Eain make it. Some, particularly those who have been forced to seek treatment, run away; Soe Than said they often then spread rumours of physical abuse, in order to justify leaving.

“Some people have been struggling so much with difficulties and want to leave drugs behind and change. Those people, we have confidence in them. But some people are not like that,” he said.

“We can’t force them. It’s based on their willingness. We are just a guide – we help them as much as we can, but it’s basically up to them.”

And what of his brother? Soe Than said he was still using but had agreed to seek treatment. “Later, maybe this week or next week, I will call him to come here,” he said with a smile.

TOP PHOTO: Ko Thura Linn had been using heroin for 10 years when he arrived at the Alin Eain rehabilitation centre in Mogok last year. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

By Thomas Kean

By Thomas Kean

Thomas Kean has been working in Myanmar as a journalist and editor since 2008. Before joining Frontier in May 2016, he edited the English edition of the Myanmar Times for six years.
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