Shootout injures Myanmar anti-drug vigilantes

25 February 2016
Shootout injures Myanmar anti-drug vigilantes
Injured member of community based anti-narcotic campaigners arrives at hospital in Myit Kyi Na, northern Kachin State, Myanmar, 25 February 2016. Photo: Myitkyina News Journal/EPA

An anti-drug vigilante group in northern Myanmar said at least 30 of its members were wounded in gunfire and explosions Thursday as they pressed ahead with a controversial mission to destroy opium poppy crops. 
The violence comes a day after police allowed hundreds of members of Pat Jasan, a hardline Christian group known for flogging drug users, to advance towards poppy fields against the wishes of local opium farmers. 
Tan Goon, head of Pat Jasan for the Kachin capital Myitkyina, said its members who had set off towards fields in the Waingmaw area on Thursday were ambushed by unknown attackers.  
"Some were shot, some were wounded in mine and bomb blasts, some were beaten and hit with stones," he told AFP, without giving details of the type of bombs used.
Local people are prepare to demonstrate in front of Myitkyina hospital and in front of Sakhone Taein Yeain home. 
Pat Jasan members are still thought to be in the area and the situation remains tense as the group, which is backed by the powerful Kachin Baptist Church, has vowed to continue its mission. 
"Our intention was to destroy poppy fields there. We haven't deviated from that intention yet," Tan Goon said. 
Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer after Afghanistan and a major regional methamphetamine manufacturer. 
Authorities have missed several of their own targets to eradicate drugs, amid links between military-backed militias and ethnic rebel groups to the multi-billion dollar trade. 
Poor farmers in remote frontier regions also have few viable alternatives to growing opium. 
Easy availability of cheap, strong heroin has spread addiction across Kachin, where a civil war has raged between the government and ethnic minority rebels since a ceasefire collapsed in 2011. 
Pat Jasan, which was formed two years ago and claims to have tens of thousands of members, has taken matters into its own hands. 
But experts say its often forceful methods -- including beatings and public humiliation -- are counterproductive and reduce the reach of needle exchange programmes. 
In a sign that this week's stand-off has significantly raised the profile of the issue, parliament's lower house approved an emergency motion urging the government to support local groups fighting the drugs trade. 
One military MP told the chamber that security forces had been involved in poppy destruction in local fields since early February. 
"Villagers said they could not accept at all activities of a community-based religious drugs elimination group, which was organised illegally. But they would accept government action according to the law," the lawmaker said in a parliamentary debate broadcast on television.
(Mizzima and AFP)