Opium Crusaders

Hkun Lat

Opium Crusaders

Images by Hkun Lat
Text by Francis Wilmer

Photographer Hkun Li follows villagers the PaJatSan anti-opium group into the poppy fields of Kachin State and observes the crisis of the current drug epidemic among low wage workers.

Opium poppies bloom into spectacular deep shades of cream and maroon in the Kachin hills of Northern Myanmar. Rolling through the small dirt roads are ancient Chinese-made pick up trucks brimming with young men and women, machetes in hand. These are the Pat Ja San, Myanmar’s Christian Opium crusaders. Motivated by their faith and desire to see social change they charge into the mountains supported by local ethnic Kachin Christian militia and Myanmar national armed forces, intent of tearing the poppy fields apart.

The rise of opium use has slowly been on the increase in Myanmar, particularly in it’s wild Northern mountains, where half a century of civil war has left many pockets of power vacuums. Into the void steps the Pat Ja San, an unlikely alliance of churches, militias and government forces, widely supported by the native ethnic Kachin population. Rehabilitation centres have also started to appear in churches. Treatment is tough, almost medieval and little is done to regulate these independent centres.

Most addicts can be found in localised industrial areas, scattered across the countryside where gold and jade mining offer rare employment opportunities. But the workdays are long and extreme labour is tough. Young men leaving their families fall into a sad cycle ending in addiction.

The Pat Ja San, despite positive intentions, have been accused of a heavy handed and short term approach. They’ve been met with violent resistance from poppy farmers. In January one teenage activist was shot dead and a landmine injured three, while February saw skirmishes break out between The Pat Ja San and an armed group in Wai Maw sub-district.

Myanmar is the worlds 2nd largest heroin exporter. The national government have set themselves a target of eradicating opium by 2019. A target which is highly unlikely to be achieved unless more is done to address the deep routed economic and social issues in which poppies flourish.

The Myanmar military and police accompany many Patja San outings. They provide additional security incase opium farmers fight back.

A loose collective of different organisations and idividuals make up the Patja San. A local ethnic Kachin militia, left, and an independant Patja San activist, right.

A Patja San activist hacks down opium poppies in Pat Wai Maw township.

Patja San activists are motivated by Christianity and consider all their work has strong Christian overtones. Here they pray before heading into the poppy fields.

Patja San activists destroying a poppy crop in Wai Maw Township.

Activists accompanied by armed police escort unload supplies as they prepare to bed in for the night at the site of an opium farm deep in the Kachin hills.

A poppy farmer in Sadone sub district. Often farmers are left with little economic choice other than to grow opium.

Here a man shows refined opium from a small metal capsual.

Worker housing in Hpakant Jade Mine. Many young men come to Hpakant in search of riches but end up falling victim to heavy drugs and living in poor conditions.

Hkun Lat is a freelance documentary photographer from Myanmar, currently based in Yangon. He works for his own projects and under assignments from international news and organizations: WWF, UNHCR, UNFAO, UNOCHA. He is also a former stringer photojournalist at AP Images. His interest in photography ignited in 2011 after the civil war broke out again in his homeland, Kachin State. He started shooting his individual projects for people to recognize and to witness ongoing and unsolved issues in Myanmar such as civil war, natural resources and environmental issues, election, drugs and opium out-rooting movements in Kachin State.

Twice awarded at Yangon Photo Festival, 1st Prize and 2nd Prize.    His solo and group exhibitions include : London School of Economics, Documentary Arts Asia, the Yangon Photo Festival, Suwon International Photo festival and Photoville.

Hkun Lat

Hkun Lat

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