Myanmar police in showdown with anti-drug vigilantes

Yangon (AFP) - Thousands of anti-drug vigilantes are locked in a showdown with police and soldiers in northern Myanmar after they were stopped from destroying poppy fields, witnesses said Sunday.

About 3,000 members of Pat Jasan, a hardline Christian anti-drug organisation whose members often don military-style uniforms and are known to flog drug users, are currently camped outside the town of Waingmaw in Kachin state.

They have vowed to eradicate local poppy fields used to cultivate opium and heroin but have been halted by authorities who fear clashes may erupt with farmers.

"Local army and police told us that they are still blocking the way for security reasons. We have asked the state government to get access," Hpala Lum Hkawng, a senior member of Pat Jasan in Waingmaw, told AFP.

Myanmar's border regions have long been notorious drug manufacturing hotspots with both ethnic rebel forces and the military or its allied militias implicated in the lucrative trade.

The country is now the world's second largest opium producer after Afghanistan.

Mountainous and impoverished Kachin, a long restless rebel region which was plunged back into conflict in 2011, produces significant quantities of opium and methamphetamine.

As a result it has a huge addiction problem, something Pat Jasan -- founded two years ago by the powerful Kachin Baptist Church -- has vowed to end, by force if necessary.

While their hardline stance has won support, their rise has created fears of a new layer of community tension in a state already battered by ethnic conflict.

Impoverished farmers in northern Myanmar have few viable alternatives to growing opium.

A local resident in Waingmaw told AFP that authorities were caught in the middle between between Pat Jasan members and local farmers who had been preparing to fight back if their fields were attacked.

"They asked Pat Jasan to forgive them for this year because they have invested much money in their planting poppies," the resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP.

"They have nothing else to do but to fight back because it's their living," he added.

Local police and military could not be reached for comment.

However a senior police official from the anti-drugs unit in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw confirmed the vigilantes had been halted.

"They are blocked for security reasons," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

"They might spark conflict with some local farmers there so they are blocked for a while," he added.

Tuu Yaw, chairman of Pat Jasan group in Kachin's capital Myitkyina, said authorities had vowed to eradicate the poppy fields themselves.

But he cast doubt on those promises, adding that the estimated 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of poppy fields their group was targeting lay in regions controlled by the military or loyal militias.

"People do not believe in them (the local authorities)," he told AFP.

"But people are not going to give up this time. Almost every family in Kachin state has been suffering from drug problems for the last three or four decades."