Myanmar anti-drug group seeks safety after ambush in poppy fields

PHOTO: AFP

Myanmar - Christian anti-drug vigilantes in Myanmar said Saturday they had halted a mission to raze poppy fields while at least 30 of their members were recovering from injuries sustained during violent clashes with unknown attackers this week.

Pat Jasan, a hardline Christian group known for flogging drug users, said it was assailed by a mob wielding explosives and stones Thursday after it set out to destroy poppy plants against the wishes of local farmers in the hilly and far-flung Kachin state.

Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer after Afghanistan, despite the government's repeated vows to eliminate the drug trade.

Production has boomed amid weak law enforcement in the northern war-torn frontier, where ethnic minority rebel groups seeking greater autonomy from the state have been battling the Myanmar army for decades.

It's believed that both ethnic militias and the Myanmar military have tapped the lucrative multi-billion dollar trade to finance their long-running wars.

Impoverished farmers in the remote regions meanwhile say they have few other viable alternatives to sustain a livelihood.

The injured Pat Jasan members are now receiving medical attention at a hospital in the provincial capital Myitkyina, with tensions running high as hundreds of others camp out in a nearby township to wait for orders from above, the group's spokesman Lum Hkawng told AFP Saturday.

He said the organisation's leadership is in talks with local authorities, who stand accused of failing to protect the activists from the ambush.

"I can not say whether we will go on our way or not," Lum Hkawng told AFP.

The sudden attack Thursday morning came after several days of a tense stand-off between the Pat Jasan marchers and police, who had blocked the group from entering surrounding poppy fields citing concerns of armed farmers ready to hit back.

Local police have not responded to repeated requests to comment.

The injured activists, seen by an AFP photographer laying side-by-side and hooked up to IVs in Myitkyina's bare-bones hospital, are all in a stable condition, according to the group's spokesman.

"And we arranged a safe place for the rest of the members who were attacked," he added.

Determined to root out a scourge of heroin addictions that have eviscerated local communities, Pat Jasan formed its loose network two years ago with the backing of the powerful Kachin Baptist Church.

Its members, who don camouflage vests and combat helmets on their missions, have used forceful methods, including beating drug users, in their efforts to break addictions.

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