Poppies and Pain

Drugs have wrought havoc in the state of Kachin in Myanmar.

                              Sr Mary Ita O’Brien explains how the Diocese of Myitkyina is

                             addressing addiction through the 12-Step Programme.

Kachin State in Myanmar is a land of beautiful mountain ranges, where the rivers Malika and Maika are born and together form the world-famous Irrawaddy River.  Bordering China, it is home to around 1.2 million people including migrant workers who work in the gold and jade mines.  It is rich in resources such as tropical deciduous and evergreen forests producing teak and other valuable wood, sugar cane, rice, gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, amber jade crystal and coal.

In rural Kachin, small-scale poppy production and the use of opium for medicinal and recreational purposes has a long tradition.  However, in the 1970s, the cultivation of opium increased as more people began to ‘use’ it.  As demand grew, the sale of opium became more lucrative and slowly the poppy replaced other crops.  Its processed form, heroin, replaced the traditional raw black opium.  The injected form of heroin is more dangerous and addictive but it is cheaper and easier to use.  What had been a herbal substance mostly used by adult males was now available to young people and women.  Later Yaba/Yama – an amphetamine-type stimulant – was developed, and because it was affordable and available, it was popular with students, migrant workers, field labourers and those involved in human trafficking.

Sr. Mary Ita with some Kachin family

There is a heroin epidemic today in Kachin State especially among young people and the consequences are devastating within families, local villages and towns.  Injecting heroin is one of the main causes of the spread of HIV.  More Kachin people have died from drug-related problems than from armed conflict, as the number of users has increased radically over the years of conflict since 2011.

 In 2009, with the encouragement of the Bishop of Myitkyina, Francis Daw Tang, the Programme for Chemically Dependent (PCD) was spearheaded by Fr Leo Gopal, Peter Nlam Hkun Awng and myself.  Originally the team leader, Hkun Awng, trained staff to carry out research on the devastating consequences of this drug epidemic around Myitkyina parish.  In response to the terrible findings, intensive awareness programmes were undertaken in the diocese.  As the situation deteriorated, we realised that an effective treatment centre was needed and staff needed professional training, experience and preparation for running the 12-Step Programme.  By 2014, staff had undergone the necessary training and was back in Myitkyina ready to begin.  At the same time, the Kachin state anti-drugs programme was launched in every village and town.  In collaboration with the diocesan anti-drugs committee, the PCD staff launched their first programme at the Rebirth Rehabilitation Centre, which opened in2015 in Myitkyina Diocese.  It caters for those who are chemically dependent and offers the 12-Step Programme.  The need is great but only a limited number can be facilitated on each programme.

 The 12-Step Programme is new in Myanmar and few understand the process.  Recently, I met two men in Yangon who had completed the programme in other countries.  They run AA meetings twice a week for a group of 5 or 6 people and are ready to help us develop the Myitkyina programme.  To date, two programmes have been completed in Myitkyina and we are working on a follow-up.  We have a very committed staff in the centre who are trying their best to plough new furrows in promoting human dignity through compassionate and more effective treatment of the most vulnerable victims of this ‘killer’ epidemic.

by: Sr. Mary Ita O’Brien,SSC


Sr Mary Ita O’Brien from Limerick has been in Myanmar since 2003.


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