Burmese suffer from country’s dependence on drug trade

Published August 3, 2006

Community workers at a DARE training house.

The nature of the global drug trade means that Canadians should be concerned about the political and human rights situation in Burma, especially the Burmese military government’s use of opium to support its economy, said a Canadian volunteer working with a program partly funded by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF).

“Burma has a ‘narco government’ and the opium that travels to China, North Korea and Russia ends up as heroin in Vancouver. There is a connection between what’s happening to us and what’s happening to Burma,” said Pam Rogers, volunteer technical advisor for the Drug and Alcohol Recovery Education (DARE) Network in the Thai-Burma border. About 150,000 refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar) have taken shelter in the border region over the last two decades to flee violence in their country. Over one million people have been displaced from Burma into Thailand since a brutal military dictatorship took over in 1962.

Ms. Rogers and Ko Lo Htoo Manutsayachat, DARE program co-ordinator, were in Toronto recently to raise support for their network, which responds to drug addiction in refugee camps through a variety of programs including prevention, treatment, counseling, training and education. While in Canada, they also met with representatives of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) in Thunder Bay, Ont., to share the network’s experience in empowering refugees to overcome drug and alcohol abuse in their communities. A delegation from NAN, a grouping of First Nation communities which is another PWRDF partner, is scheduled to visit DARE sites in the Thai-Burma border next year.

“We have traditional and modern approaches to addiction which are unique to the region and to its beneficiaries,” said Mr. Ko Lo Htoo, who belongs to the Karen ethnic tribe of Burma. Among the treatments used by DARE are detoxification through herbal medicines, auricular (ear) acupuncture, and herbal saunas; the network also uses healing circles and interventions through art, music and theatre.

“We have a 66 per cent success rate, which means abstinence from drugs over four years of treatment. In Canada, the success rate is 10 to 30 per cent over two years of treatment,” said Ms. Rogers.

Until DARE came along, the response to addiction in refugee camps was “not compassionate,” said Ms. Rogers, adding that drug users were often pushed back to Burma, where they end up being killed by the military. “No distinction is made between a dealer and user there. They shoot them dead.”

Addiction rates in the ethnic areas of Burma range from 40 to 85 per cent of the total population. For most, the path to addiction was easy: Burmese fields traditionally planted with tea were replaced by opium and villagers mired in poverty worked in opium fields for better wages. Most, however, ended up being paid in opium, according to some studies conducted by non-governmental organizations based in Thailand. Addiction has also become “a natural coping strategy against trauma, torture, rape and murder, loss of freedom, and loss of traditional way of life,” according to DARE’s Web site, www.darenetwork.com

Drug addiction has had devastating consequences for families and communities, where women not only end up shouldering all the responsibilities of running a household, but are vulnerable to domestic violence. In response, DARE also has programs related to gender issues. DARE also works on issues involving migrant workers, water, sanitation, health, and security in refugee camps.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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