Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) runs a drug rehabilitation centre at their headquarters in Laiza.
Established in 2010 as part of a KIO drive to eradicate drug use from the northern state – estimated by some to be as high as 70 percent among youths – over 1,000 people have passed through its doors in the past year. Anyone captured with drugs is immediately detained for a period of 15 days to six months. 22 of the 118 current prisoners are women. Most of them are addicted to heroin, opium or methamphetamine – available in abundance throughout Burma.
“Some are volunteers, some have been arrested,” explains Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp, who manages the facility. “We arrest both the drug dealers and users, because if there are no dealers there won’t be any users either.” Inmates are held in concrete cells with dusty mats or cardboard sheets for beds, inside a compound fenced with barbed wire. In one room, a man squats shackled with metal chains from head to feet. “He tried to escape,” says a KIO official, who asked not to be named, before telling us not to take pictures. “The international community doesn’t understand things like that.” New arrivals are initially locked in isolation for a week as a form of detoxification, but Captain Hfaw Daw Gamp hastens to add that they are “usually” kept in a group because one inmate attempted suicide. “This way they can look after each other,” he says. “Some people that come here have gone completely crazy from too much methamphetamine, they just shout and yell. But now they have recovered.”
“This is a very promising programme,” he says, beaming with pride. “Now there are almost no drug users left in Laiza. Even if we try to find them, we hardly ever see drug addicts here anymore.”
But human rights groups have universally condemned the forced incarceration of addicts, particularly children. Earlier this year, the UN described compulsory rehabilitation centres as a “serious concern”, which “raises human rights issues and threatens the health of detainees, including through increased vulnerability to HIV.”
Although the KIO runs a partnership with an international health NGO, which provides anti-retroviral medicine for HIV-infected patients, local groups say authorities are “monopolising” treatment. They warn that the KIO’s zero-tolerance policy prohibits them from implementing effective harm reduction strategies, such as needle exchange programmes.
“In this area (Laiza) we can’t run a drop-in centre or provide any medicines, because the KIO is running the drug prohibition programme,” said Bawk Hkun from the Kachin Development Group. “Because of that policy, some activities in harm reduction cannot run.” The KIO’s policy forces intravenous drug users under ground. “Their drug policy ends up increasing HIV infection. Because drug users are scared of being arrested so they will inject in hiding places, where they share needles and it’s very difficult to find them and help them.” Locals agree that crime has reduced dramatically in Laiza and other townships since the eradication programme began. But the Captain admits that the KIO encourages “graduates” to leave Laiza and return to their home towns, even handing them money for the trip. So they have no real way of measuring its impact.