MYITKYINA — Burma, also known as Myanmar, is the second-largest opium producer in the world, accounting for 10% of global production. And although there is little available data, residents and aid workers say there’s been a troubling increase in the number of young people here addicted to drugs. 

The most popular drug now is known as “formula,” a cocktail of cough medicine and opium that is taken as a drink. But methamphetamine and straight heroin are also common. 

Sang Naw, who is 23, injects heroin into his veins twice a day, having started the dangerous habit after failing his high school exams six years ago. “Some of my friends were using it, so I wanted to have a try,” he says. “The first time, my friend gave me too much and it nearly killed me. Froth started coming from my mouth.”

He sometimes works in the logging industry with his relatives. But when he’s not working, he injects heroin with friends. “My mother sent me to Yangon to quit,” he says. “I was there for two or three months, and I was clean.” 

But he says once he returned to Kachin state, he started using it again. “If I go to the rehabilitation center, I can quit for a month or two. But when I’m back, I see my friends, and I start using again. It’s so easy to buy here.”

Brang Nu, a pastor from the Baptist Church in a village near the Myitsone Dam Project in Kachin state, recalls that the president stopped the China-backed dam project two years ago following a public outcry. 

“After the project started, many gold-panners came to this area,” he says. “That’s when the drug business started. We’d never heard of this drug before. It was just beer. Now everyone, young and old, is using drugs.”

There are no official figures on how many drug addicts there are in the country, but social workers say the numbers are increasing. And with the recent democratic reforms, Burma is under pressure to tackle its drug problem. 

The government has created an anti-drug campaign song to broadcast nationwide. The lyrics warn that “Drugs are like fire, they will destroy your life.” The campaign’s album is on sale to the public in an effort to stop people from using drugs. 

U Kyaw Min, who lost his younger brother to an overdose, has founded the Voluntary Social Workers’ Association that works to help drug addicts quit. “I couldn’t help a member of my family who was addicted to drugs and died,” he says. “I don’t want this to happen to other people.”

But he says it’s difficult to break the cycle. “Even after years in a rehabilitation camp, where we give them vocational training, when they go back into society they start using drugs again. We have to understand that they are patients who need help for a very long time.”

So prevention is the best solution. “We raise awareness in communities and schools. We know our work is small, but this small thing can have a big impact on the future.”