Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Killing Fields: Kachinland

By Pangmu Shayi

 The ongoing destruction by goldmining around Chibwe dam

Even as the latest round of talks were being held between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independent Organization/Army (KIO/KIA), Burmese army shelling of KIA positions and villages continued unabated, killing and maiming innocent civilians, including young children. The truth of the matter is that while the regime publicly goes through the motions of a peace process, the army is relentless pursuing its intention of decimating the KIO/KIA and the Kachin people. The brutality of front line Burmese troops and the atrocities they committed are well documented, no matter how blatantly President Thein Sein and his cohorts may deny it.


Devastating as this ruthless armed onslaught is, suspicion is now mounting in Kachin circles that the regime is waging a wider covert genocidal war of drugs and environmental destruction against the Kachins.

The Drugs Killing Field
Small-scale poppy cultivation and use of opium for medicinal and recreational purposes had long been a tradition with rural Kachins, especially in the border areas. Opium, considered good medicine for diarrhea and stomach ailments and easing the effects of malaria, was also the go-to medicine for treating sick farm and pack animals. Opium was also used recreationally to create feelings of relaxation and euphoria.

But by the mid 1970’s, a radical shift in opium cultivation and drug use patterns had evolved in the Kachin area. Fuelled by an increasingly lucrative drug market, opium cultivation became more widespread and commercial. The processed form of opium, heroin or no. 4, replaced raw, black opium as the preferred drug choice. Although more dangerous and addictive, especially if injected, heroin use became more prevalent as it was cheaper and easier to use. Opium or drug use, which had been the sole domain of adult males in rural areas, now began to ensnare more and more younger people from urban areas, including women and girls.
Heroin use, which first became rampant among miners in the jade town of Hpakant, spread rapidly to other transient workers around the area, such as gold miners, loggers and sex workers. The drug problem was amplified by the practice of sharing needles by injection drug users (IDUs), which led to alarming levels of HIV/AIDS infections. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranks northern Burma, which is the Kachin area, as having the highest HIV rate among drug users in South East Asia. The AIDS epidemic has now reached such crisis levels that even lower-risk groups like girls and women are now being endangered.

Drug use took an even more ominous turn when the last decade saw a boom in the production of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) like yaba/yama. Affordable and easily available, it became popular with students as well as migrant workers and field laborers who need to do heavy work or work all night. This has resulted in an overwhelming number of drug dependent Kachins, young and old, male and female, rural and urban.

It is estimated that 70% of university students at Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, are addicted to some kind of drug or the other. Washawng, a small village on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy from Myitkyina, has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest IDU rates in the state, most of them young people. This is not surprising given that 100 out of a total 520 households in the village deal in drugs.

Admittedly, the long standing opium and alcohol culture of the Kachins makes them more vulnerable to the lure of drugs, but the ease with which drugs like heroin and ATS are being flooded into Kachin towns and villages, especially in government controlled areas, gives rise to the questions: Are drugs being used as a cold war weapon, targeting Kachin youths? Is the regime carrying out a drug genocide against Kachins?
Locals in Myitkyina say river ports and boat stations are the main channels of drug entry and distribution in the town. Corrupt police and Drug Bureau officials, suspected of dealing themselves, usually turn a blind eye to all the drug trafficking, seemingly even to encourage it. Police confiscation of drugs is restricted to pure opium, allowing the more dangerous and addictive heroin, morphine or yama, to inundate the market. When drug dealers are caught and brought in to the police station, they would inevitably be set free the next day. So townspeople no longer bother to report drug dealings to local authorities. They say it is commonplace for police to find ways to harass, intimidate and replace ward leaders whom they regard as anti-drugs.
There are also reports of a secretive Bamar group in Myikyina, identifiable by the logo of a triangle and cow on their yellow shirts, actively recruiting Kachin youths to become addicts and dealers. The impunity with which this group conducts its illicit activities convinces many of the regime’s involvement or complicity in a secret mission to systematically corrupt and destroy Kachin youth.

It is ironic that the “divide and rule” policy so deplored when British colonials used it, is today being put to use with such great effect by the regime. It has successfully enticed a KIA splinter group the NDA-K, lately turned Border Defence Group, through lucrative business deals, to collaborate in the fight against their own Kachin brethren. There are no restrictions on opium cultivation, production and use of heroin and ATS in NDA-K controlled areas. With NDA-K vehicles being allowed to pass freely through army checkpoints, locals speculate that the group is fast becoming a major conduit for drug flow in Kachin State.

The ever increasing number of IDUs and subsequent HIV/AIDS infections, pose serious health threats to the Kachins, and is certainly a major cause for setbacks in Kachin society. If appropriate action is not taken effectively, and soon, the minority Kachin, with a population of just over 1.5 million, could face extinction or the probability of becoming an “endangered species”. This alarming situation has led the KIO to declare opium and related drugs, “the principal and most destructive enemy of the Kachin people.”

The Environmental Killing Field
The government’s so-called development projects, from the Myitsone Dam to the oil and gas pipelines to China, carried out without proper environmental studies and consultations, are endangering not only the environment, but also displacing Kachin and other communities around the area, depriving them of land and livelihood.

All indications are that construction of the suspended Myitsone Dam will resume, despite the presidential decree. Meanwhile, the Chibwe Dam on the Malihka River, the main tributary to the Irrawaddy, has been completed in spite of the law prohibiting dam construction on tributaries. The indiscriminate logging and mining going on in the area, in addition to the dam construction, has harmed, irreparably perhaps, one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.

Furthermore, under the government’s opium substitution program, Chinese and regime-crony companies are allowed to come in, take possession of thousands of acres of virgin forest land, and clear them to grow lowland mono crops. The use of high doses of strong chemicals is subsequently destroying the quality of the surrounding ecosystem.

Chinese business enterprises, financed by Chinese government subsidies, are the worst offenders. They come in, ostensibly to take part in the opium substitution program, but instead engage in plundering timber and other natural resources. Some are even reputed to be involved in the drug trade. It is no wonder that this Chinese led program has been labeled “financing dispossession” by the Transnational Institute of Amsterdam.
UN reports show that opium cultivation has been rising for the past six consecutive years. A KIO source points out that this is because the government is not serious about targeting major poppy cultivation areas located high in the mountains. The program it seems is just another excuse for Chinese and crony companies to grab land and make huge profits, and line corrupt official pockets while local Kachins languish and face obliteration.

International reaction to all this has been muted at best, perhaps with an eye to exploiting the “last economic frontier in Asia”. The call for a UN investigation of the regime’s human rights abuses has come to an end. The US has removed sanctions, and the Thein Sein government is hopeful that economic cooperation will eventually lead to military cooperation. Even Senator Mitch McConnell, who not long ago stood up in Congress to extol the Kachins’ “important historical connection to the US”, in reference to Kachin contributions to the Allied war effort in Burma during WWII, calling Kachins worthy of “recognition as allies”, has rushed to Naypyidaw to be among the first to pay respects to the Thein Sein government.
The Kachins won’t go gently into the night. And given the racial powder keg that is Rakhine, the world had better take notice before it all blows up, and any hope of reconciliation is lost for all time.

The ongoing environmental destruction in Kachinland

  The ongoing destruction by goldmining in Kachinland

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