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The drugs that wreak havoc in the highlands

Community leaders estimate that a majority of the village’s men and boys use drugs.
Community leaders estimate that a majority of the village’s men and boys use drugs. Athena Zelandonii

The drugs that wreak havoc in the highlands

As substance abuse increases nationally, Jarai villagers in the once-remote province of Ratanakiri grapple with the arrival of a drug they cannot name – though they know it is harming their youth

At first glance, Saom Trork Chas village in Ratanakiri seems little more than a simple rural community: the sound of children chanting their lessons drifts across a dusty schoolyard; Jarai women carry traditional baskets on their way to and from market; and, between the stilted homes, pigs waddle by.

But this is a place wrestling with a significant drug abuse problem, says 42-year-old community organiser Sal Thi. He first noticed villagers using drugs in 2012. Since then, he says, it has become prevalent among men and boys.

Saom Trork Chas lies more than an hour’s drive from the provincial capital, Banlung, and 15 minutes off the main road. But that relative isolation has not protected it from a drug’s scourge and the social ills that go with it, says Thi.

“Addicts buy the tablets or the powder – it costs $20, $30 or $100 – and if they don’t have the money, they steal pigs, cattle or relatives’ money,” he says. “The drug addicts are cruel. They attack us whenever they are angry.”

Thi’s relatives are among the victims. His 15-year-old nephew died in December after he took drugs and crashed his moto. And a cousin in his twenties made $2,000 from logging, and spent it on drugs; he then sold his motorbike to buy more; after that, his wife divorced him.

The downside of better roads – like Saom Trork Chas’s main road here – is that it has become far easier for drugs to reach once-remote parts of the country.
The downside of better roads – like Saom Trork Chas’s main road here – is that it has become far easier for drugs to reach once-remote parts of the country. Athena Zelandonii

“He became skinny after taking the drug,” he says.

Away from the village, through a nearby cashew plantation, is a small bamboo grove. Thi points out a natural alcove formed from the bamboo shoots.

“This is where they do it,” he says, picking up a piece of a cigarette wrapper. “They take the paper foil from a cigarette pack and burn the drug inside, and inhale the smoke with a straw or a bottle.”

It’s not the only venue for addicts, he says: he’s seen villagers getting high in the plantations near town and in ditches that run along the cassava fields. This prevalence is particularly acute during the harvest season, when labourers get cash to work the fields. Others illegally log trees and smuggle the timber to Vietnam to pay for their habit.

Village chief Ly Sam Oeun reckons 70 per cent of the men and youths in Saom Trork Chas are taking drugs. Over the years, he has filed regular reports to the commune and district authorities, and has worked to raise awareness among parents. It has not helped much.

“Drug-taking is the most pressing issue in this [Jarai] village,” he says. Recently, Sam Oeun barred an egg vendor from Bakeo district from entering the village.

“I monitored him for more than 10 days, and I found the guy sold drugs,” he says. “So I sent him away.”

Yet Sam Oeun knows that makes little difference: the youths, he says, simply drive out of the village to meet dealers or arrange deliveries via their phones.The village chief – who is Jarai – says some of the 20 Khmer families who migrated to the village in recent years are to blame.

Saom Trork Chas village chief Ly Sam Oeun.
Saom Trork Chas village chief Ly Sam Oeun. Athena Zelandonii

“The migrants began to use drugs before the ethnic villagers,” he says. That assessment is shared by Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc. “Drugs came into remote areas since 2012 via Khmer migrant workers on economic land concession companies,” says Thy.

O’Yadav district police chief Mar Vichet acknowledges that drug use is rife in the district, but says he has refrained from taking action until he looks further into the issue. “We arrested more than 16 addicts last month . . . we just educated and released them,” he says, adding that higher authorities are seeking the dealers.

The drugs themselves, he adds, come from Phnom Penh. Neang Bona, chief of the anti-drug crimes office of the Ratanakiri provincial military police, says that yama (methamphetamine) powder is the most commonly used drug in the province. Part of the problem is a lack of education or awareness about drugs among the community.

“Users confuse the drug with energy medicine because dealers tell them it makes them stronger [and] of course, it does not make them feel sleepy and they have more energy to work,” he says. “But they don’t know its [harmful] effects.”

None of the villagers in Saom Trork Chas could name the drug consuming their village, but all described it as either a tablet or white crystalline powder that was consumed by being heated to make smoke that was inhaled through makeshift pipes. There is little doubt that they are taking methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine first appeared in Southeast Asia as an over-the-counter medication in the 1950s. Its use as an illicit recreational drug has increased dramatically since the 1980s.

In its 2016 World Drug Report, the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime notes that there is a large and growing market in Southeast Asia for yama tablets and crystal meth, with crystal meth being the main drug of concern in Cambodia. It also noted an increase in the use of meth in tablet form.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Village elders fear for the next generation’s future. Athena Zelandonii

“Data on treatment for drug use in East and Southeast Asia show that methamphetamine use has become a growing concern,” it states.

Meas Vyrith, the secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, estimates that as much as 85 per cent of all drug use in Cambodia is meth, 90 per cent of which is consumed in crystal form.

“At first, it was just Phnom Penh and the border provinces with Thailand,” he says.

Since 2001, though, the authorities have found meth in every province, both in towns and in rural areas. However, Vyrith says, the NACD has no information on whether such drugs have made their way to Ratanakiri’s remote ethnic villages.

What is clear is that the number of reported cases has increased significantly since 2000. In that year, the NACD recorded 591 people using drugs nationwide. In the first half of this year, that number reached nearly 16,900.

Both figures are certainly underestimates given that the NACD’s figures are based on what it is told by village chiefs, and “many people don’t know how to write reports”, Vyrith says. Still, there seems little doubt the numbers are growing, and that’s certainly true in places like Saom Trork Chas.

Just outside the village, 54-year-old Seng Khit, a one-legged ex-Khmer Rouge soldier, is tending his cassava field. He has seven children; one of them, a 12-year-old son, recently fell in with the wrong crowd and quit grade 6.

“Now that he is addicted, my son does not eat regularly – just once a day,” he says. “Most of the young people in the village are on drugs. Normally they take it at night – around 11pm or midnight.”

Khit doesn’t know how his son affords the habit, but assumes his friends pay. He has tried repeatedly to get him to quit.

“But he doesn’t listen. When I ask him about drug-taking, he [lies and] tells me he’s stopped using,” he says. “Taking drugs makes him feel happy.”

Seng Khit says his young son is a user.
Seng Khit says his young son is a user. Athena Zelandonii

Until now, Khit adds, the authorities have ignored the issue. “I am very concerned,” he says, “and I would be happy if someone cracked down on this. It’s damaging the future of our youth.”

Next to a shed behind the schoolyard, a group of Jarai teens is hanging out. Among them is 21-year-old Sev Linh, who says “all my friends” take drugs. Asked whether he does, Linh laughs.

“I don’t, but I would if I had the money,” he replies.

How do drugs reach the remote areas of Ratanakiri?

The National Authority for Combating Drugs says a number of vectors are involved in spreading drug use around Cambodia. One of the most important is migration, both external – Cambodians working in Thailand – and internal – Cambodians working domestically but away from their home province.

The NACD’s Meas Vyrith says migrants from the provinces come to Phnom Penh, which is the central transit point for the meth trade in and out of Cambodia, and are exposed to drug use. They then carry their habit back to the provinces, particularly during national holidays such as Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year.

Moreover, Vyrith says, since the implementation of the Traffic Law in January, the NACD has found that truck drivers are major meth users and are expanding the drug’s reach as far as the growing national road network takes them.

And while meth is known to flow into Stung Treng province from Laos, says Vyrith, that trade goes mainly to Phnom Penh; the only cross-border meth trade passing through Ratanakiri is for drugs destined for Vietnam, where the price is higher.

A policeman walks by a shuttered drug den during a raid in the capital’s Trapaing Chhouk village in February.
A policeman walks by a shuttered drug den during a raid in the capital’s Trapaing Chhouk village in February. Hong Menea

Just a symptom of the system

Ratanakkiri and the adjacent province of Mondulkiri have been subjected to tremendous socio-economic shocks in recent decades. Massive deforestation has seen the rise of vast economic land concessions (ELCs) involving plantations of rubber, cashew nuts, cassava and other cash crops, and the influx of migrants seeking land.

In the process, the cultural practices of the provinces’ ethnic minorities have been devastated, leading to a marked rise over the past decade in instances of alcohol abuse, drug abuse and domestic violence. All this, says one expert, is symptomatic of an ELC development model that privatises profits and socialises costs.

The links between unchecked economic development and social ills are well established and take many forms. In Cambodia’s northeast provinces, the issue is related more to drug abuse than the drug trade per se – despite that, Cambodia is a known transit country for the global drugs trade, says the NACD’s Meas Vyrith.

Perhaps the best-known country in terms of the global drug trade is Colombia where, during his work in 2002 with the United Nations on a project that mapped out the world’s drug routes, Italian journalist Alessandro Scotti observed a similar pattern of development that led to the flourishing cocaine trade.

“In the past 40 years San Jose [in Colombia] was periodically at the centre of extraordinary socio-economic shifts – in which investors arrived from afar – alternated by moments of deep crisis,” Scotti writes in his book Narcotica.

“First came rubber, assured riches for the estate-owners so long as they were allowed to enslave the indigenous population. Then it was time for the pelt trade, which lasted as long as there were animals in the then-virgin forest. With each crisis the countryside would empty as locals migrated towards the cities to sustain themselves. When cocaine arrived, so did wealth.”

As did, he goes on to write, a host of problems ranging from civil war to kidnappings, extortion and murder.


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